Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Latest (and last?) Update...

I swore I had put Going Coastal to bed a few weeks back, with no intention of continuing this blog site. My daily routine here is far too ordinary to warrant writing regular entries, especially when I'm trying to stick with my original plan of highlighting only the trip to Mississippi.

However, I would be remiss in not mentioning recent articles in the local Northern Express and Kathy Gest's Northwest Business News article chronicling our journey.

I ran across another interesting article in Slate Magazine that discusses some potential opportunities to redevelop Waveland, Mississippi.

And the saga of the SBA Disaster Loan Program goes on and on. At this point it's difficult to separate political posturing from tangible results on the Gulf Coast.

According to a recent press release, Jackson County, Mississippi (where Luke and I were located) has over 400 hundred businesses that have received SBA Disaster Fund Loans. This is countered by previous claims from sources of ridiculously slow loan processing, and much tighter restrictions on these loans than were originally claimed by SBA officials.

The unsoliciated press coverage of out October trip continues, with an article in the most recent Seidman Update (see page 16) from Grand Valley State University, the host institution for the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Epilogue/Getting Some Perspective

Three week have lapsed since my return, and I'm still getting a true sense of what the trip to Mississippi meant to me and the people I interacted with.

I've grown increasingly frustrated with the reports coming out of the South concerning the slow processing with the SBA Federal Diaster Loan Program I've kept in contact with a couple of businesses I helped in Gautier, Mississippi, and the checks being issued are apparently few and far between.

I remember back in September sitting at a harbor front restaurant in Baltimore with other SBDC counselors, when the Mississippi program was first announced. Several people in our group were skeptical about how the loans would be administered in a timely manner. And now some of those fears that were discussed that evening have become real.

Okay, so now I guess this is where I have to justify the trip from my perspective. What I do for a living is much more than processing loans. Yes, finding loan money for people is one tool that I can use, but there usually is a lot more to helping someone understand the realities of running their own business, growing their business, and in many cases in Mississippi, surviving as a business.

Three weeks removed, what sticks out in my mind are the situations where I listened to business owners for over two hours at a time, as they told their amazing stories, and eventually we analyzed if they should even continue to operate as a business, or if they should turn, walk away, and throw in the towel.

We all can use some perspective from time to time, but imagine having to quickly gain perspective to make life-changing decisions in a matter of a few days or hours. What we ended up doing in Gautier was important, and now I find now that I have less patience for folks who take forever to make relatively easy choices here at home. Maybe my job is to ultimately give people some of this much needed perspective.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I've had a difficult time writing an ending summary of this trip, and here it is three days later and the words aren't exactly flowing. The return journey was long but uneventful and I found myself back in the office on Monday morning without much of a transition. That might have been a mistake, because right now my mind is spinning in many different directions.

On the day of departure, Luke and arrived early in the morning at the Gulfport airport. The airport was going through renovations before Hurrican Katrina arrived, and with the additional damage it looked more like a facility one would find in third world country. As we walked into the terminal we both commented in not so many words that it was indeed time to go.

So our story ends with this last post. I've grown to appreciate how the business people I dealt with in Mississippi were solving their problems with surpising optimism. They are friendly, caring people that usually carry a smile on their faces and have a good joke to tell. It took two weeks, but now I realize that under extreme circumstances that humor was probably their best means of defense.

We had a lot of assistance on this trip especially from the Mississippi SBDC and the Michigan SBTDC. I'm glad that Luke was around to be the voice of reason in some borderline crazy situations.

Thanks for the 300 plus visitors to this site in a short two week period, and for those who quickly spread the word of its existance. And last but not least, Deb Donovan and Bill Palladino offered tremendous moral support, and covered brillantly for me in my absence from the Traverse City office, Thank You!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Swan Song

Luke and I are back today at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for one last day on the job before we head back to Michigan tomorrow morning. Being Saturday, we're not sure what to expect for traffic flow.

Yesterday was an unusually busy day in this classroom that has morphed into the Mississippi Business Assistance Center. Luke and I typically handle general questions while Bob and Wendell from the SBA handle detailed questions about the Small Business Administration loan documents. When it gets hectic like yesterday we all help with the SBA paperwork.

The setup here took a week to organize, and now people are finding and utilizing what we have to offer. The strange part will be leaving here and not knowing if the people we've helped will get their loan assistance.

The parking lot which was over flowing with commuter students yesterday is virtually deserted today. I noticed early on that there are no bike racks, or stops for public transportation here on campus. In fact there are no bike paths or pedestrian friendly intersections anywhere in Gautier. There is no doubt that the car is king here.

Much has been written in the local papers this week regarding the opportunities that exist for Gulf Coast communities to rebuild in a way that will make them more people friendly. In other words, recreating the compact, vibrant, walkable towns and neighborhoods that withered away, and were swallowed up by bigger, busier roads from the 1960's to present.

Now I've been an advocate of this New Urbanist philosophy for years. In fact I rallied for years when I owned a business in Leland, Michigan to attract more year-round businesses that would cater essential goods and services to the locals. The idea was to maintain a village center that would prevent unneeded trips to Traverse City, and to provide a thriving environment for Leland business owners.

Back then people weren't paying much attention, but over time I think my therory proved to be correct. Now Leland is an even weaker seasonal tourist town with high business turnover rates. Meanwhile, people from Leland many times will run in to each other at the Meijer or Target store in Traverse City 35 miles away.

With the latest spike in gas prices and the overflowing traffic patterns we've seen here in towns along the Mississippi coast, a major mindset change would be the perfect remedy.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Knowing when to get out

Did the title get your attention? Actually our lesson today will deal with exit strategies. We've heard many stories here on the Gulf Coast from business owners who are weighing the costs of rebuilding their business versus selling the land and skipping town.

I mentioned previously how most of the people we've met with are in generally good spirits. They've already made the choice to stay here and are now at the point where they're ready to dig in and get to work.

A few others are still on the fence, and they seem much more stressed. This tends to be the case when someone is getting on in years and thinking of cashing in their chips rather than using their nest egg and starting over.

When counseling someone who is just starting a business, I like ask them questions regarding their "exit strategy". For example:
1. How long do you plan to operate and be a vital part of the business?
2. When you move to the next phase of your life (ie. retirement), what will happen to the business?
3. When you decide to get out of the business will you sell it to partners or family members, sell the business before the business approaches a downward part of its business cycle, or simply sell the assets and move on?
4. When will the benefits of running this business no longer fit into your overall life plan?
5. If you make an early exit and die (the extreme exit), what will happen to the business and those who are left? How can the risks to others (employees, bank, suppliers, investors) be minimized?

As we continue with this business lesson, let me say that most people don't ever consider how they will get out of business before going into business.

This has become even more real and more important here in Mississippi, when people lose buildings, customers, equipment, paperwork, and years of hard work in a hurricane.

So, what's the moral of the story? Think about what conditions would cause you to not want to be in business anymore, and have a plan in place for making a graceful exit.

My Dad, Peter Wendel is an expert in this field, especially in dealing with the succession issues of family businesses. I'm sure that along the line I've picked up a lot of skills that I use everyday from listening to him. So here's my shameless promotional plug (and free counseling session) for today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Sidewalk Sale

Drove past this interesting sight in the parking lot of the Grace Baptist Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Piled up are clothes sent from caring folks from other parts of the country for those here who are in dire need.

Now I'm not so sure how the distribution system works for all of this, but I've seen similar scenes in other local areas. The piles are there for anyone to pick through.

Fortunately I was good to go with laundry, and I'm glad it hasn't rained, because all that would be left would be wet clothes. Wait, wasn't this what these parking lot items were supposed to replace in the first place?

Here's Luke on the left pictured with the afore mentioned ball of lightning known as Billy Lawson. I joined them at the new setup we have with the Small Business Administration at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

I'm still on call at the local Hancock Bank here in Gautier, but they have no office space for me to use. It's tough talking to people about financial matters in a open bank lobby, so I'm usually walking between locations, which means I'm spending a lot of time in parking lots in 85 degree heat.

Billy read the blog and said he liked it. Later he told Luke he actually didn't care for the blog, it was just a Southerner's way of being polite. We decided that we had to qualify the earlier comparison to Sean Penn (10/5 entry). Although the picture doesn't show it, Billy looks more like Sean Penn post Falcon and the Snowman and pre Madonna.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Thinking about tomorrow, when dealing with today

Every day a pervasive question it seems is inevitably discussed here; Could or when will a hurricane of this magnitude strike this area again? In other words, how does one plan longterm for something that may never happen again?

Personally I think it will happen again, and it won't be another 36 years before another category 5 hurricane hits the Gulf Coast. Most educated opinions will admit that we're way behind the curve on curbing the burning of fossil fuels that produce global warming and atmosphere altering weather patterns. And messing further with nature has serious and far reaching consequences for all of us.

But what if you live here? How does one rebuild one's house and survive in the short term, and still have the presence of mind to think about what may occur in the long term?

I've heard plenty of people in the office we share talk about moving north of Interstate 10. I-10 seems to be a line of delineation for escaping future ocean flooding and serious damage.

The remains of ocean front homes I've shown in previous posts may be rebuilt, but the word on the street is that there won't be anyone who will underwrite an insurance policy for any of them.

Luke and I went somewhat stir crazy today. We wanted to be busier so we called our friend Billy Lawson (see entry of 10/5). Billy, who Luke and I call a "big time operator" made some calls, and starting Wednesday we're relocating for the remainder of our stay to separate locations that may see more traffic.

I'm heading to a nearby bank branch, while Luke is going to the Gulf Coast Community College next door. We've enjoyed the friendly staff at Southern Mississippi University (and their internet access, which may not be available at the bank). They apparently enjoy seeing an outsider's perspective, and have dozens of people here reading this blog.

Worth a Thousand Words

Due to popular request, today I’m showing more photos, that demonstrate the strength and power of nature in its most extreme form.

The first two shots show what was once the two-mile Biloxi Bay Bridge between Ocean Springs and Biloxi, Mississippi.

We’ve been told that an engineering and construction team will use $150 million to rebuild the pilings and spans that make up this vital link to Biloxi’s Casino area.

The photo to the right comes from Celene Mielcarek, a enrollment specialist here at the University of Southern Mississippi.

This was her home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi that was lost along with most of her personal belongings in the storm. Celene maintains an upbeat and enthusiastic demeanor in the office we share with her, despite the tremendous adversity she has faced.