For as long as she can recall, Alice McIntosh has faced two tough problems: raising enough money to start her own business and finding a store that sells shoes large enough for her size 9 1/2 feet.
Now, with the aid of a new Prince George's County program, the 24-year-old Forestville resident is ready to solve both her troubles. In a few months, she expects to open a shoe store specializing in large sizes.
"I'm not the type who wants to work for someone else," said McIntosh, who plans to call her store After Eight and to seek customers with feet larger than size eight. "My long-term goal is to make a statement to the shoe industry to design shoes with people who wear large sizes in mind."
McIntosh is one of the first 30 graduates of a controversial Prince George's program designed to help women, minorities and low-income people start small businesses.
The $700,000 Entrepreneurial Development Program, financed mainly with county funds, offers two-week and 12-week courses at Bowie State College. Officials say it is aimed mainly at black women in their thirties who do not have high school diplomas, but the program is open to other would-be entrepreneurs.
All 30 Prince George's residents who signed up for the first two-week course in June completed the program, and McIntosh is expected to be among the first to open a business. The two-week course costs $50. The fee for the 12-week program, scheduled to begin in September, is $200.
The Prince George's project is one of 12 such ventures set up throughout the country by federal and local government officials and small-business specialists from the Council for Economic Action, a Boston-based nonprofit group.
However, the programs have sparked debate. Some critics contend that such projects provide help for relatively few would-be entrepreneurs and have little long-term impact on local economies. Only 92 of the 1,300 people who have participated in the national program in the past three years have started businesses, officials say.
"These programs are of limited usefulness, especially for people with serious problems," said Richard Nathan, professor of public policy at Princeton University. "We shouldn't expect that underclass groups will be able to benefit."
"The question is, 'Can you apply this solution to the unemployed inner-city D.C. kid who's a dropout?' And the answer is 'no,' " said Marc Bendick, a consultant in welfare reform with Bendick and Egan Consultants in the District. "To point to places like P.G. County and say that this is the answer to its economic problems is where it goes off the track."
However, the program's advocates argue that the specialized training in management, financing and other business techniques offers sizable benefits for some low- and moderate-income people, especially those who are highly motivated.
"If we can get anyone to benefit from the program and establish their own businesses, we're still ahead," said Morris Tranen, vice president of the Council for Economic Action, who has played a key role in setting up the Prince George's program.
Graduates of the county program agree. "My whole approach to business has changed," said McIntosh. "It motivated me and it gave me a lot of important information on how to deal with lawyers and bankers and where to get money."
McIntosh, who graduated from South Carolina State College two years ago, said that she had raised $400,000 in loans from friends and banks and plans to open her store in March, probably in the Capitol Hill area.
Charmaine Letren, another participant in the Prince George's program, plans to open a beauty supply shop in Forestville this week. She described the county course as "confidence building."
Letren, 23, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica 11 years ago, said that a few months ago she was unsure where to turn for the $20,000 she needed to start her boutique. "But the people at the program were able to point out a lot of ways I could raise the money," she said.
As part of the Prince George's program, officials conducted a study aimed at determining whether some businesses are underrepresented in the Washington area. According to the findings, the area has a shortage of dental laboratories, stained and leaded glass dealers, lawn maintenance services, gourmet food stores, sheet music stores, and door and gate operating device installers.
"There is not enough money in the federal government to properly subsidize small businesses," said Thomas Howell, vice president of the Bank of Boston and a founder of the national program.
"Right now there are two economic classes, those who are well off and . . . the 35 million Americans who are in urban areas and are trapped and left behind. The best way to address this problem is through enfranchisement."