On August 10, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse sat down with a group of local businesspeople from a variety of backgrounds — health care, retail, finance, and manufacturing — to discuss the challenges of staying in business, and the efforts he's making to help.
Whitehouse met the group at Taso's Restaurant on Atwood Avenue for a breakfast roundtable.
Among the business owners at the meeting were Michael Pappas, a physical therapist at Atmed; Dan Pritsker of Providence Diamond Co.; Thomas Thomaidis, a financial planner and son of the owner of Taso's; Bob Ricci of Tri-Jay Electroplating and Dura-Kote Technology of Johnston; Deborah Giannini of Alpha Metal Works of Johnston; and Steve Palmer of Alternate Universe Technologies of Providence.
After a brief introduction, Whitehouse posed the main question: "How are your businesses doing?"
Pappas told Whitehouse that his practice is now seeing more patients, but that's not translating into more income.
"It's been tough," Pappas explained. "We've been busier, but not necessarily more profitable."
Thomaidis said that, from his perspective seeing both the finance industry and his father's small business, lending is a key issue.
"The banks are just not lending," Thomaidis explained. "I have a lot of small business client [and] they're concernes because they're good businesses — but they don't fit a certain criteria."
Whitehouse said that the U.S. Treasury will soon release the names of a group of banks across the country that will receive $30 billion to boost lending.
"Small banks with strong financials [will] receive federal money to help lend that money to small businesses," Whitehouse explained. "There's $30 billion in appropriated money to use."
"It's good to hear from you that it's going to come around," Thomaidis told Whitehouse.
Whitehouse also pointed out that the recent health care reform provides a new way for businesses to find the best deals on insurance for their employees.
"The new health care exchanges should be good for small business, because the insurance companies have to post their prices," Whitehouse explained, which forces health insurers to be more competitive. "Right now, if you're a small business, you go in [and] they don't particularly care is you pick their product or not."
A good portion of the discussion focused on promoting Rhode Island in an effort to bring in new business.
"Rhode Island has a really good manufacturing heritage [and] our ports are big assets that are being underutilized," Whitehouse said.
And while Whitehouse admitted that "the decisions I get to participate in are national ones," and not necessarily focused solely on Rhode Island, he added that he's been working on the effort to bring the America's Cup yacht race back to Newport to support the local tourism economy.
"If we could get one of the trials for the America's Cup in Newport, that would help," Whitehouse explained, adding that Valencia, Spain, saw a $2 billion boost to its economy when it hosted the last competition.
Giannini — who hosted a visit by U.S. Congressman James Langevin at her shop on April 20 — said she has decided to keep a positive attitude in spite of the current economic climate.
"I like to carry the flag for the state of Rhode Island and try to support people who are in the same situation as I am," Giannini explained. "I'm on this mission of trying to support manufacturing in Rhode Island."
When the topic of Chinese imports was brought up, Giannini said that American companies still produce higher-quality products.
"There is a place for China [but] in the last two months, I have [received] three molds from China that do not function at all," she explained. "There is something to be said for making things in America."
Palmer told Whitehouse that his business — which designs iPhone apps for use in the medical field — is forced to wait for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve software using the same process the agency uses to test drugs.
"We have to do something about the FDA approval process for new products," Palmer said.
Whitehouse explained that he expects the Senate Health Committee to take up the matter and that "there will be a bill at some point" to address the FDA's review procedures.
As the 90-minute meeting closed, the business owners took a final opportunity to leave Whitehouse with their message.
"Can you just relay the message 'Just get it done'?" Ricci asked.
Giannini added: "Being in business, you feel like you're choking every day — I want to breathe again."