Leaders of small and mid-size businesses in Loudoun County see the local business climate as generally healthy, but they say the big guys still get all the breaks, according to a report released Friday.

The report details the results of focus groups conducted in August for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development by Wirthlin Worldwide, a market research firm based in McLean.

Twenty-three chief executives and other business leaders participated in the focus group sessions under an agreement of confidentiality, and the final report was delivered to the department with all the names blanked out.

As a whole, they said they would choose Loudoun over surrounding counties and rated it more favorably or as favorably as such counties as Prince William and Fairfax in terms of its work force, customer base and personal property taxes. They said, however, they think that Fairfax has a better school system. They also rated other counties more favorably in terms of public transportation, cultural activities and access to health care.

The department paid $12,000 for the study. Although it was not scientific, department officials said they hope it will provide insight into the scattered, and often less vocal, small-business community. The study was limited to businesses with more than 20 employees but fewer than 250.

"It's pretty easy for larger businesses to have their voices heard," said Larry Rosenstrauch, department director. "It's very hard sometimes to have an organized way to hear the smaller guys."

Overall, the small-business leaders agreed that Loudoun is a business-friendly county, with a favorable tax climate, access to a well-trained and educated work force, and a good quality of life. However, "many respondents shared the perception that Loudoun government was more responsive, flexible and cooperative with larger businesses," especially when it comes to such issues as zoning permitting and tax breaks.

In addition, almost all of the focus group members expressed a lack of clear vision from the county's leaders on the county's future and strategic plans for growth.

"These are the smaller guys who may not be that wired into the daily or weekly or monthly cycles of a government," Rosenstrauch acknowledged. Although he said he has no immediate solution for closing the communication gap, the Economic Development Commission, a group of local business leaders who advise the Board of Supervisors on business issues, has begun informal outreach programs. For example, the commission recently started CEO round tables, taking a few small-business CEOs at a time to breakfast to talk about what's on their minds.

Many of the topics raised in the focus groups are familiar: concerns about an eroding quality of life, traffic congestion, too few quality restaurants and what the report dubbed an "ol' boy network" in some areas of government that make it harder for outsiders to get fast service.

But other areas of concern are more specific, and less obvious.

"There was a host of smaller issues . . . that showed me the [participants] were very knowledgeable about certain key aspects of our community, and that I was surprised to hear," Rosenstrauch said.

For example, some business leaders said they believe that the county's services are vestiges of a time when the county was more rural and that they can no longer support a booming business population.

One of the focus group participants said he thinks that the county Sheriff's Office is not prepared to handle the number of businesses and people coming into the area and that conversations with the sheriff showed him "how slow a process it is for them to build up the force to go with the people who are coming here."

Another participant expressed concern that fire and rescue is made up primarily of volunteers. "When you don't have people around during the day to fight a fire, it becomes a health and safety issue," the participant said.

One of the focus groups consisted entirely of Leesburg-based business people, and that group complained of inadequate telephone wiring.

Rosenstrauch described these issues as "pressure points" that the county needs to investigate.

The Department of Economic Development will discuss the report with the Board of Supervisors, Rosenstrauch said, and he hopes to begin acting on the report in early January.

How the Counties Compare

Loudoun small-business leaders compare Loudoun County with Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince William counties. B indicates better, A indicates about the same and W indicates worse.

Customer market A

Personal property tax A/B

Schools A/W

Work force/Labor B

Types of existing businesses B

Land value B

Transport/roads B

Crime B

Real estate tax B

Ease of approval W

Ease of working with local government W

SOURCE: Wirthlin Worldwide, 1999; focus groups conducted for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development

CAPTION: "It's pretty easy for larger businesses to have their voices heard. It's very hard sometimes to have an organized way to hear the smaller guys."-- Larry Rosenstrauch, director, Loudoun County Department of Economic Development