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Obama visits Lanham, Md., to discuss initiatives to help small businesses

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

In the last two weeks, the town of Lanham has had VIP visits from none other than POTUS himself.

Why Lanham? And twice in two weeks?

As some local businessmen see it, the town has one major advantage: It's close to the White House.

And, the White House said, Lanham is emblematic.

"Lanham represents communities across the country that are hard-hit by these tough economic times," a White House spokesman wrote in an e-mail Friday afternoon. "These visits allow President Obama to discuss ways he'll fight to strengthen our small businesses, invest in new green technologies and get more Americans back to work."

On his first visit, Feb. 5, Obama went to Oasis Mechanical Contractors. He used the occasion to discuss his plans to push for a $5,000 tax credit for small businesses that hire new employees, and another initiative to help small firms refinance commercial real estate loans and mortgages.

Last week, he and Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center in Lanham and used the trip to promise roughly $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for the first new U.S. nuclear power units in more than 30 years. The unincorporated community of Lanham is part of Prince George's County, dotted with housing developments and businesses, just off the Beltway and Route 50. The main business hub is the Washington Business Park, a series of office buildings at the corner of Martin Luther King Highway and Forbes Boulevard. Along the main drag of MLK Highway sit major offices of two grocery store chains -- Shopper's Food Warehouse and Safeway -- but "for lease" signs stand in piles of snow on some of the surrounding office parks. Across the Beltway is the Metro's Orange Line and an Amtrak stop at New Carrollton.

'A lot of empty seats'

At Cafe 57, a popular food by-the-pound lunch place just off MLK Highway near Oasis Mechanical Contractors, manager Sean Sung said business is down 30 percent.

"We're just hanging on," he said. "We're not making any money. We used to be packed for an hour or two at lunchtime. Now, there's a lot of empty seats."

One of his patrons -- Daniel Jumalon of Waldorf -- has a home improvement business and said he didn't think a tax credit for hiring new workers would be of much use to him.

"If I don't have any work I can't hire," he said. "I can't have guys working for $12 an hour to sweep the shop floor."

In the last year and a half, Jumalon's home improvement business has gone from five employees to two: Jumalon and one employee do most of the deck-building and basement-finishing work. He's three months behind on his roughly $1,500-a-month mortgage. There are some days he gets a handful of calls for new work, and then there's a day like Monday. Number of calls: zero.

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