Article in the Savannah Morning News by Julia Ritchey. Savannah’s small business owners got a series of sunny reports Wednesday from about a dozen panelists at the second annual State of Small Business summit. About 200 people filled the second floor ballroom of the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center to hear local experts touch on benchmarks pertaining to job growth, startups, construction permits, high tech and small business lending, among other topics. View a slideshow of the State of Small Business luncheon. Economist Mike Toma from Armstrong State University, the first panelist, said of the 3,600 net jobs created in the metro area during 2012, 27 percent were a result of businesses employing fewer than 50 people, equating to about 1,000 jobs. “So what we’ve got here is a vibrant small business community that continues to expand and continues to grow,” said Toma. Toma said the sectors where growth was most prevalent were tourism and hospitality, retail and trade and small businesses and health services. The summit was sponsored by Wells Fargo and the business mentoring group SCORE, and each panelist was given three minutes to give a data-driven update on small business sectors. Cindy Landolt, the city’s tax revenue director, said small businesses make up the majority of firms in Savannah. Of 7,300 businesses operating in the city in 2013, about 60 percent reported gross receipts of $500,000 or less, said Landolt. About 75 percent reported having 10 or fewer employees. Landolt said data on tax revenues and alcohol license fees also have shown steady upward movement over the last three years. “Businesses are growing, and new businesses are being started,” said Landolt. “In 2013, our records indicate that over 500 businesses paid a business tax certificate for the first time. These numbers really illustrate a healthy growing economy.” Panelist Bea Wray, executive director of the Creative Coast, said one area in which Savannah is lagging is high tech. “We sit here today roughly a decade behind Charleston,” said Wray. “Charleston has nine technology incubators, seven angel investment groups and will hire in this calendar year 3,000 technology workers — high paying jobs.” Savannah, meanwhile, had about 33 high tech firms employing about 300 employees. Wray said people needed to not just use technology but learn to create it as well. The panel concluded with the construction and commercial real estate sectors, featuring Chuck Mitchell, a sales agent at brokerage firm MSK Commerical Services, and Cristy Lawrence, the city’s development services liaison. Mitchell said vacancy rates across all three commercial real estate segments had dropped in 2013 — office at 7 percent, retail at 6.5 percent and industrial at 10 percent. “(W)e have a little over 82 million square feet representative of those three sectors with a vacancy rate of 8.3 percent, and we’re going to see substantial improvements in both of those as we move to 2014,” said Mitchell. Mitchell said Godley Station is mostly developed, and New Hampstead will be next in terms of growth. “Things to watch in the coming year: You’re going to see the central business district explode, Hutchinson Island may in fact come of age, you’ll see more activity on the megasite … and you’re going to see continued growth on the westside.” Lawrence said construction activity had picked back up in Savannah and valuation of permits surpassed their pre-recession peak of $312 million in 2008. “Since 2009, construction activity has been steadily increasing within the city of Savannah, and in 2013 we had a record year and eclipsed of the pre-recession peak by permitting a total of $342 million in projects,” said Lawrence. Lawrence said construction work within the city has shifted to being more commercial than residential. She said commercial construction had shown an increase of nearly $100 million in five years, while new residential construction had decreased. SOME OTHER PANELIST HIGHLIGHTS • Marshall Tuck, corporate small business officer at Gulfstream, said his company had spent $192 million on procurements from small business in Georgia, about $60 million in Savannah alone. • Brian Davis, manager of the state department of labor Savannah Career Center, said employers with questions about unemployment claims, job posting or other issues could use their new employer hotline at 1-855-436-7365. • Tammy Blaha, vice president of corporate affairs at Goodwill of the Coastal Empire, said Goodwill placed 1,672 employees last year at an average starting wage of $9.67 per hour. • Susanne Toney, professor of economics at Savannah State University, said metro area unemployment had dropped to 6.6 percent in February, beating state and national rates. • Tony O’Reilly, president of the Small Business Assistance Corporation, said he’d seen the number of new startups start to percolate again and encouraged small businesses to consider alternative lenders. • Kyle Hensel, director of UGA’s Small Business Development Center in Savannah, said companies that had sought help from business counseling services such as SCORE or SBDC had seen sales increase 9 percent.