Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., promoted federal programs that can assist small businesses Thursday in Pasco, calling the Tri-Cities a "hub of innovation."
Eighty-four percent of Franklin County businesses have fewer than five employees, but small businesses are not recovering from the recession as quickly as large corporations because big banks are not lending, Cantwell said.
She used Columbia Sportswear as an example of a company that was able to grow from 40 employees in the early 1970s to more than 3,000 with the help of Small Business Administration loans.
"I want to see the next Columbia Sportswear right here in the Tri-Cities," Cantwell said. "We want make sure the access to capital is available for those businesses that are trying to grow those new opportunities."
Cantwell, who became chairwoman of the Senate Small Business Committee in February, made the remarks to 230 people at the Bridging Partnerships Small Business Symposium at TRAC, which was sponsored by the Tri-Cities Development Council. The event focuses on helping contractors do business with Hanford.
The SBA can help companies with counseling, training and finding export opportunities, Cantwell said. The Department of Energy made a total of $6.3 billion available nationally to small-business contractors in 2012 for work at sites like Hanford.
"(DOE) must take steps to avoid threatening the overall mission of Hanford, but also making sure that small businesses get the ability to do part of the cleanup work," she said. "There are many subcontractors doing the cleanup work at Hanford that qualify as small businesses."
The Tri-Cities needs to be more involved with the SBA's Small Business Innovation Research program, a partnership between small business and federal agencies that allows the private sector to solve technology problems facing government programs like the military, she said.
About $45 million is available for research with the program in Washington.
"My concern is that most of these dollars are being spent on the other side of the state," she said. "I view this area as the research hub."
She also encouraged businesses to use the state's 24 small-business development centers, including the one in Kennewick. The centers help businesses with services like developing marketing strategies, conducting research and analyzing costs.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, the SBA's new administrator, was successful in getting smaller loans to help economic development in "harder to serve" communities when she was a community banker in California, Cantwell told the Herald.
She is hopeful Contreras-Sweet will be able to use the federal Community Development Financial Institution program to help create business in areas like downtown Pasco.
"We want to make sure that those same kind of infrastructure programs through the SBA are available in Pasco," she said. "Often times, those guys will fund something before a traditional lender will. They help people get to the next phase when the traditional lender will come along."
Fatima Traore, loan assistant with the Benton Franklin Council of Governments' community and economic development department, liked Cantwell's message, she said.
Traore strives to keep and expand existing businesses, while trying to bring new ones to the Tri-Cities.
"That was the main message -- create jobs, create jobs, create jobs," Traore said.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom