Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gov. Malloy and Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

It’s a smaller version of his controversial “First Five” program, through which the state gives grants and loans to companies that promise to create 200 jobs, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he will ask lawmakers to extend the Small Business Express program during the upcoming legislative session.

For the past year, the Small Business Express program has doled out grants and loans of $10,000 to $250,000 to 494 small businesses across the state. The program was part of a bipartisan package in 2011 aimed at encouraging job growth.

Malloy convened a group of more than 30 small business owners Thursday at a state Capitol forum to hear feedback on the program, which has been administered through the Department of Economic and Community Development for more than a year.

Since implementing the program, DECD has provided more than $67 million in assistance to the state’s small businesses and is poised to fund another $38 million. More than 1,600 businesses have applied for assistance. The state has approved 494 of those applications and denied 452. Meanwhile, another 661 applications are still being processed.

During the roundtable discussion, Malloy told business owners that he plans to call upon lawmakers to continue the program.

“I will ask the General Assembly to stay the course for some of the critical programs that help to boost the economy of the state of Connecticut,” he said.

The program was approved by lawmakers during a special legislative session in October 2011. It was part of a bill that, among other things, authorized the state to bond a total of $100 million over two years to aid Connecticut businesses with 50 employees or fewer. Last year, lawmakers raised the number to 100 employees, enabling an estimated 3,600 additional businesses to participate.

Malloy said he hadn’t yet worked out the details of how much money he wants to see approved to continue the program, but said he wants it to be an ongoing effort.

“I think we probably have to continue those efforts. When you talk about our approach to small business, what we’re doing is what other states have done for a long period of time. So this really shouldn’t be seen as a program that is of short duration. It needs to be understood as part of our long-term growth strategy,” he said.

Malloy’s desire to keep funding the program is unlikely to draw criticism from lawmakers. It was initially established on a bipartisan vote and was lauded by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Many of the business owners at Thursday’s roundtable discussion told Malloy the program helped them expand their businesses or hire new employees.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Michael Vrtis, president of Realgy Energy Services (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

That was the case for Michael Vrtis, president of Realgy Energy Services in West Hartford. Vrtis told the governor the program helped his company enter into a new business model and add 13 new employees in the process.

“The effect this has on people is just unbelievable,“ Vrtis said, adding that many of the people he’s been able to employ are on their second or third careers.

“All of a sudden they’re at a company with healthcare benefits, with 401k benefits, with vacation. And in a supportive environment,” he said.

Vrtis and other business owners also praised the responsiveness of the Economic and Community Development Department’s staff. Vrtis said the fact that his calls are returned promptly has been almost as important as the monetary assistance he’s received.

Others offered critiques of the application process, which they said involves too many forms and results in significant legal fees. Lou Auletta, president of Bauer, an aviation manufacturer in Bristol, said the program was helpful, but he wished he had known more about the application process beforehand.

“It would have been good to know up front more about what the process entailed,” he said.

Over the course of applying, Auletta said Bauer had to submit around 20 different documents, which he said “seemed excessive.” Meanwhile, the total legal fees ended up representing around six percent of the matching grant the company received from the state, he said.

Malloy said he would like to see the process streamlined so small businesses are required to fill out less forms to access the loans and grants. He also came expecting to hear some complaints about the legal fees.

“Remember, we’re not the lawyers. So you’ll have to have that discussion with them, but we’ll take a look at the issue,” he said.