When Carol Todd, owner of the Pet Centre Animal Hospital near Centreville, first received complaints from a neighbor about barking dogs in the outdoor runs at the 24-hour hospital, she feared for her business and its 52 employees.

"I know that one person who is very vocal can cause problems for a small business," she said. Those problems--from zoning hassles to lawsuits--can hit a sole proprietorship hard.

Thankfully, a customer worked at the Dr. William E.S. Flory Small Business Development Center in the county, and suggested that Todd stop by for some free advice.

Todd thinks that advice not only saved her a lot of trouble, but probably helped her expand the business, allowing the hospital to navigate governmental red tape to get a special-use permit to build an indoor run for the dogs.

"I didn't know until I came in what they did. I was hoping to get some help with county bureaucracy," Todd said. "But Linda called the neighbor and set up a series of meetings. And I don't know if that's something I would have done."

In this case, Linda Decker, the center's CEO, acted as a mediator, counselor and point woman for contacts in the county. She even sat in the neighbor's back yard to listen to the barking.

"Linda helped me negotiate with [the neighbor] and also got me to go through the county for a special-use permit to make the runs indoors," Todd said. "And she told me, 'No one will shut you down.' She helped me a lot emotionally."

The six-employee Flory Center opened in 1991 during the height of the last recession, when many small businesses were flailing and failing, Decker said. "We had grown men coming in here and crying because their business was going through foreclosure," she said.

So the county's Industrial Development Authority offered the first funds and helped establish the center.

The center leases its building, an old farmhouse, from the Prince William Park Authority, and spent $50,400 on a renovation--much of which the employees did themselves--and now pays the Park Authority $1 per year in rent.

The services small-business owners and owners-to-be use at the center are free. That includes consultations with Flory staff members, Flory library access, fax machines, copiers and information on matters ranging from choosing a CPA to getting access to capital.

"The library has been our saving grace," Decker said. "It's all been acquired because someone needed it."

And Decker knows how to get it: When she decided the center needed hundreds of issues of Entrepreneur magazine and its supplements, she bargained the company down from a price of $20,000 to $4,200. "Then I got that $4,200 donated," she said.

The center receives about 4,000 calls for information a year and has about 150 clients.

Karen Talak, an employee at the center, used to work for Southern Financial Bank in the loan department. She now works for the Flory Center, helping clients discuss what they need before they go to the bank to try to obtain a loan. She will readily tell clients before they face the bank that they will not be granted a loan. She also will call contacts at the local banks and tell them when she thinks they need to look closely at a Flory client coming to the bank with a loan request.

Some clients come to the center in the early start-up stages, when their business is just a seed of an idea. Then those clients might return about four years later because they decide they want to buy a building and don't know the best way to go about it, Decker explained. "We're where they bounce their ideas off of."

Decker said the center doesn't have any way of computing how many local small businesses have been started up because of help from the Flory Center. But the center calculated that between 1991 and 1998, a total of 1,917 new jobs were created among its clients, $188.1 million was generated in clients' increased sales and $117.4 million was generated in total capital investment.

The community also benefits from the center in other ways.

The Flory Center this year wrote up the business plan for the new Freedom Museum in Manassas upon request from state Sen. Chuck J. Colgan. While coming up with the nonprofit's business plan, the center hired a history expert for a month and checked out other museum business plans throughout the country. And the Industrial Development Authority gave the initial seed money. "Our client was the community," Decker said.

This summer, the state tried to take full control of the center. But Decker and the Flory board members fought back with a lawsuit, saying the state's stipulations represented a breach of contract. A judge ruled in the center's favor, and the center became fully independent--free of state control. The center's budget consists of $200,000 from the Industrial Development Authority, with the rest--both in cash and supplies--coming from private groups and the governments of Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County.

Decker is known to have consultations with clients for five hours at a time, meet with business owners at 10 at night and work weekends.

"I don't know where the work and where the fun stops, because this is fun," she said.

CAPTION: Business owner Carol Todd, left, talks with Flory Center CEO Linda Decker, Buster H. Dean of Richmond Group International and attorney Tristan-Marc Fillon.

CAPTION: Linda Decker, a business-minded negotiator and problem solver, offers resources and consultation.