With the help of host Citrix Online’s GoToWebinar program, Capps and the chamber addressed the economic recovery and the challenges local businesses faced in 2009 — a grueling year by almost everyone’s definition — and their prospects in 2010. A small group of business leaders was on hand with Capps in a high-tech auditorium at Citrix’s spacious new headquarters, 6500 Hollister Ave., with another group participating via the Internet.
After a brief introduction from Kristen Amyx, the chamber’s president and CEO, Capps got right to her points. She touched on the latest unemployment numbers released Friday by the Labor Department, which reported that another 85,000 jobs were lost in December and that unemployment remains at about 10 percent.
Capps also reflected on the economy’s tumultuous year in 2009.
“Our economy was in free fall,” said Capps, noting that hundreds of thousands of jobs were being lost each month.
Getting from that bumpy road to a somewhat smoother one wasn’t easy, and Capps said she had to make some hard decisions as a lawmaker, “many of them unpopular, unpleasant and expensive.”
Capps admitted that her most controversial decision in her seven terms in Congress came with her vote to approve billions of dollars in TARP funds that were given to banks in distress. Although she said she hated putting taxpayer money on the line, “inaction simply wasn’t an option.”
Now as some banks are beginning to repay their borrowed money sooner than expected, Capps was optimistic about the coming year and how decisions made by President Barack Obama and Congress would effect local jobs.
Along with the efforts to reform health care, which is a large burden on any business, Capps said that stimulus projects — like the Mission Creek Flood Control and Rehabilitation Project and the Santa Maria Levee Improvement Project — have “saved or created” 1.6 million jobs nationwide.
Other goals for this year include encouraging businesses in the energy field, especially alternative energy, and getting money back into small businesses, which have struggled as their access to capital and loans has dried up.
But it’s a balancing act between spending enough and compounding the nation’s deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office said reached a record high of $1.4 trillion in fiscal 2009, more than triple the previous high set in 2008. Capps vowed to continually try to find the proper balance by what her constituents tell her.
Participants in the Webinar were asked which option would have the most positive effect on their business this year. A third of the respondents said increased access to capital and a third answered increased access to loans. Another 17 percent said reduced health care costs.
“It’s a tough lending environment,” acknowledged Natalie Orta, who serves Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties as chief of the Economic Development Division of the Small Business Administration.
Orta encouraged borrowers to improve their odds of getting a loan by knowing how much they need, what they’re going to use it for and, most important, how they’re going to pay it back.
Jim Crook, who runs Santa Barbara Chrysler Jeep Dodge, expressed concern about the tight credit lines. Crook has been in business for 31 years, and he said that the last two have proven extremely difficult.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said.
Customers who come in to purchase vehicles often can’t get loans even if their credit is good, Crook explained. The business itself has also had difficulty getting loans.
Orta recommended that businesses having trouble getting loans call around to multiple financial institutions, because “all lenders are not alike.” Many lenders won’t deal at all with car loans at this point, she said. She encouraged those turned down for loans to ask why so they can refine their next application.
“Banks got scared, just like everyone else did,” said Capps, who added that regulators are watching lenders closely.
Fred Barbaria, owner of Santa Barbara Signs & Graphics, said that he felt consumers were changing their behavior because of the economy — an effect that could permanently change their habits.
“Business may not come back,” he said, although he said he and his seven employees were doing well.
Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf was also on hand to answer questions. The economic picture at the county level was very bleak, she said, because of a combination of a drop in property taxes and the unreliable funding the county receives — or doesn’t — from the state and federal governments.
But the county has taken a number of steps to help take the edge of the recession. As an example, she said, the county’s local vendor outreach program helps keep 60 percent of the county’s expenditures on goods and services with area businesses. Another program to help homeowners and businesses access funds for energy-efficiency retrofitting is also expected to get off the ground in April, Wolf said.
Friday’s Webinar was a first for the Goleta Valley chamber, which last year took its operation completely online, closing its traditional bricks-and-mortar office as a significant cost-saving move. In the wake of the chamber’s virtual transformation, board member Bob Grissom, general manager of Cox Media, said the organization has fielded numerous inquiries from chambers of commerce exploring the concept in other parts of the country.