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

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010; A11

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.

"As long as the phone is ringing, it keeps me focused on the future," he said as he ate lunch. "Otherwise, it gets a little depressing."

Struggling businesses

Rick Cummings, president of Oasis, said he received a call Feb. 1 from the White House, asking if he would mind if "somebody from the White House came out for an event." He didn't know that it was the president until White House staff members and Secret Service agents showed up the next day to check out his building.

When Obama came three days later, he sat in a closed-door meeting explaining his plans to help small businesses to Cummings, his business partner Dennis Bean and two other business owners -- Ruth Gresser of Pizzeria Paradiso in the District, and Willem Polak of Potomac Riverboat in Alexandria.

"For me to sit in a room and have the sitting president of the United States ask our opinion, it was surreal," Cummings said. "The odds are equal to winning the lottery. It was amazing." Cummings, who installs heating and air conditioning systems, said he told Obama that although he thought the tax credit for creating new jobs would work for some, it wasn't likely to help his struggling business.

What would really help him, he said he told Obama, is for banks to loosen credit so that builders, for example, would "go back to borrowing" and start constructing offices; they would then need Cummings's workers to install heating and air conditioning systems.

"I don't always have work for the guys I have on staff," Cummings said one recent afternoon in his office, recounting the conversation with Obama. "I told him I don't have work to bring anybody new on. If builders aren't getting credit to build, say, condominiums and offices, then my guys aren't needed as much."

How did the president react to his advice?

"He was understanding about it," Cummings said.

It has been a tough year and a half for Cummings. He's laid off six employees; slashed his overhead by renegotiating contracts on cellphones, copiers and uniforms; and he and his partner took a 20 percent pay cut. He's hopeful that things will start turning around this spring and that business will pick up, but even so he expects his sales to be down by 20 percent again this year.

Another problem is that Cummings's customers often want to stretch out their payments, just as his vendors are demanding their money sooner, creating what he calls a "cash vacuum." "Everything I own is in this business," he said, sipping coffee from a Fred Flintstone mug. "The stress of keeping my employees keeps me up at night. If this fails, I'm 50 years old and I'd be starting all over again."

He recently got a $35,000, zero percent interest loan through a federal program and used it to pay off a higher-interest loan. That saved him $2,000 a month in much needed cash.

"People are afraid," Cummings said. "The reality is, it sucks out here. They say that small businesses are what drives America, but we've got a flat tire right now."

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