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Wednesday, 10 March 2010 16:12

SBA spreads the wealth wide and far in I-40 rockslide loans

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The U.S. Small Business Administration plans to hand over more than $1.4 million in disaster relief loans to a host of unlikely recipients in the region.

The low-interest loans are meant to aid businesses distressed by a rockslide that shut down a section of Interstate 40 in Haywood County since October.

Many of the 15 businesses that have received loans so far are hotels, motels and restaurants found far from the interstate. Others don’t appear to be tourism-related businesses at all, making it hard to figure how a drop in the traveling public on I-40 would have hurt their bottom line.

Becky & Jaime’s Water’N Hole, a bar in Waynesville, will receive $17,300 in federal money.

Asheville’s Fun Depot, which offers go-carts, laser tag and mini-golf, will get $87,800 in loans.

And Falin Excavating in Sevierville, Tenn. — more than 35 miles away from where Interstate 40 is blocked off — has received the most out of any business so far: $333,200.

SBA spokesman Matt Young pointed out that the economic impact is far more widespread than one might think.

“You can have counties north of Haywood, south, east or west,” said Young. “They all could have been impacted because of their inability to have access to Interstate 40.”

County lines mean little when it comes to doing business, Young added. Businesses on either side of the closed road may have lost access to suppliers, for example.

Young would not provide the names of businesses that were denied a loan.

A pervasive impact

Dave Day, owner of Asheville’s Fun Depot and the adjacent Brookstone Lodge, received SBA loans for both businesses.

Day said sales have dropped by 10 percent because of the rockslide, and his businesses have suffered the loss of lucrative bus groups that often stop by.

“It’s not like I was going to go out of business, but it definitely had an effect on the business when your sales drop off,” said Day.

With an ailing economy already hurting sales, businesses have had the extra burden of proving their financial loss was caused particularly by the rockslide.

Since Day keeps a tally of where his customers come from, he was able to show the SBA a drop-off of customers from Tennessee.

Hotel manager Teresa Smith said she’s likewise seen a plunge in Tennessee travelers venturing to Maggie Valley since the rockslide occurred.

Smith is general manager of the Maggie Valley Inn, one of the few clear-cut cases of a tourism-based business in the actual vicinity of the slide.

On a recent weekend, only 12 out of 110 rooms at the hotel were occupied. During the same weekend last year, 28 rooms were full.

“Certainly [the loans are] going to help keep us afloat through the rest of the winter,” said Smith. “March and April are even typically slower than December, January and February because skiing is over with.”

Smith said though above average snowfall has brought a greater influx of skiers to Maggie Valley, the inn has had to cut back on its already skeletal wintertime crew.

Smith not only handles her regular duties but also mans the front desk and answers phones — tasks that would usually be divvied between two employees.

Even though the inn is approved for loans, they haven’t received one lump sum, Smith said. The SBA is doling it out a little at a time.

Loan or no loan, it’s clear that most businesses in Maggie Valley have all been affected by the rockslide.

“You can just ride up and down the road in Maggie Valley and look at how many cars are in each of the businesses,” said Smith, who also serves as president of Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “You get a good feel for what everyone’s going through.”

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