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Charlie Crist takes time to hear from small business owners

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Running for political office after a (not intended) six-year exile, Charlie Crist conducted a one-hour listening session with a group of approximately 20 Pinellas County small businessmen and women on Wednesday afternoon in Clearwater.

Among the things he learned was how onerous it is to file the paperwork for a Small Business Administration loan, and how difficult it is for some small businesses to get credit, nearly a decade after the financial meltdown of 2008.

“You’re all small business people and owners, and you really have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in this economy,” Crist said in kicking-off the hour-long meeting, held in a conference room in the offices of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. He said he wanted to know their issues, so if and when he’s elected to Congress this fall, he could attempt to make their lives a little easier. “Your ideas can be very empowering, and your thoughts are important. I’m asking you to employ me so I can fight for you in Washington.”

Crist has been running for Congress in Florida’s 13th District since last fall, but he hasn’t held too many press availabilities since that time, where at one point he looked like his toughest match to win the Democratic primary against now former opponent Eric Lynn. Lynn’s now out, and GOP incumbent David Jolly is back in, and it won’t be an easy contest for the former Republican turned independent turned Democrat.

Amy Terrell with Amy’s Beauty Supply has recently moved her business to 22nd Avenue South. She said she believes there are many opportunities to apply for a grant, but because she works as a nurse in the daytime, she doesn’t have the time to do the research to find out. Crist said that having somebody help with grant writing might be good service in a congressional office.

Leslie-Ann Ciccone is co-owner of Swah-rey, a dessert bar which opened last fall in St. Pete’s burgeoning Grand Central District. She said filling out the forms to qualify for an SBA loan was akin to a full-time job, and she ultimately discarded that notion and used her credit cards to set up her business. From a local standpoint, she said her main issue was with permitting with the city of St. Petersburg, which she termed “brutal.”

Ciccone said the biggest issue locally was with city inspectors who always had the final say. She said though everything was built to approved code, the inspector she was dealing with still didn’t approve, and she had to continually redo the plans, costing her more money and time. “If we’re being fair, if I have approved plans and I build to them, you should approve me based on those plans.”

Crist said his congressional office might be helpful in helping entrepreneurs with filling out their SBA loan applications. He also said his office might be able to work with local governments and “utilize persuasion” to find a different inspector with the city.

Although Crist appeared to be hearing the anecdote for the first time, that was not the case. Shortly after the meeting concluded, he sent out a fundraising email with a link to his Facebook page, where Ciccone is featured in a short video talking about her problems with the government in getting her business established.

Not everyone is having a hard time getting a loan. Mario Farias with Farias Consulting said he recently went to his bank for new project and was approved within 24 hours.

Chamber officials said the one of the biggest concerns that they’ve heard from businesses for the past few months are new labor rules that will increase the salary cutoff for overtime pay. Currently, salaried employees who earn more than $23,660 a year and meet other criteria are not entitled by law to overtime pay, but that threshold is scheduled to roughly double, to $47,476, on Dec. 1.

Some of the attendees were invited by the Clearwater Chamber, who were asked by the Crist campaign to identify some small business owners to attend, while others were contacted by Vito Sheeley, the campaign’s outreach director.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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