By GOV. JOE MANCHIN

CHARLESTON -- There's no doubt about it -- even though West Virginia is in a lot better financial shape than many of its neighbors -- we're all feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.

That's true not just for the average West Virginian, but also for its small business owners. As someone from a small business background, I know that when times are tough for your customers, it makes it even tougher for your business.

West Virginia's Small Business Division of the Development Office (SBD) has witnessed increased small business loan amounts for three months in a row, but that is an exception to what's happening in neighboring states. Regardless, our entrepreneurs are telling us that their customers are cutting back on their spending and, as a result, some of our small businesses are running in to cash-flow problems.

Many small businesses are having trouble accessing money because of tighter lending guidelines, rising credit card rates and fewer options with lines of credit. And, home-based businesses have suffered from increases in adjustable mortgage rates.

The Small Business Division is committed to helping our small business owners with problems such as this, so they have created a free instructional course called "Thriving in a Challenged Economy."

The course, which is offered at locations across the state, is designed to give entrepreneurs at least one solution they can implement in their businesses tomorrow that will make a difference in their bottom line.

In the class, professional business counselors encourage you and help you take steps to find assistance, to shore up finances and to create a strategic plan for tough times. They also offer other workshops to help entrepreneurs manage their businesses. The Small Business Division also provides free one-on-one, confidential counseling for those who want to start a new business or expand their existing company.

There is a bright side to our current economic slump -– downturns also create opportunity. The business "churn" makes way for new businesses that can, for example, take advantage of the weak U.S. dollar and find new markets overseas or discover new niche markets.

If you have such an idea, the SBD can chart a path to make your business proposal a reality.

About 90 percent of our state's businesses employ fewer than 20 people. Ensuring that our small businesses have the resources they need to succeed is critical not just for the business owners, but for all of West Virginia.

Each year, more than 2,000 new and existing West Virginia businesses turn to the Small Business Division for help. I encourage all our entrepreneurs to find out how we can help your business not only survive in this tough time, but grow and plan for the future.

For more information about the courses or other small business questions, call the Small Business Division's free "Ask ME" business answer line at 1-888-982-7232 or visit www.sbdcwv.org.

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