By Jenifer K. Nii

On the same day Utah was ranked first in the nation in the growth of women-owned businesses, the director of the Women's Business Center of the Salt Lake Chamber said it may see its funding drastically cut.

The Association of Women's Business Centers alerted its members that funding for 53 of the 88 Women's Business Centers -- including the one in Utah -- is at risk of being cut by nearly half as of July 1 if Congress does not act.

The Salt Lake Women's Business Center is designated a "sustainability center," meaning it is not a start-up and meets other qualifications for federal sustainability funding. In 2002, the center qualified for a five-year, $125,000-per-year grant from the Women's Business Center budget, which is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

However, Nancy Mitchell, executive director of the center, said funding was cut in fiscal 2003-2004 to $120,000. Now, because the whole sustainability program is up for reauthorization, Mitchell said all bets are off.

Unless Congress acts, she said funding for centers like the one in Utah are at risk of having to divvy up a significantly smaller budget -- 30.2 percent of the total Women's Business Center budget -- which could result in reduced funding for all 53 sustainability centers, or closure for 23 centers.

The AWBC urged its centers to support proposed legislation before the U.S. Senate Small Business Committee that seeks to increase the amount of money reserved for "sustainability funding" from 30.2 percent to 48 percent of the total program budget. According to the AWBC, that would be enough to provide each of the 53 sustainability centers with a $113,000 grant.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is a member of that committee. Representatives at his Washington, D.C., office were not available for comment Wednesday, but Mitchell called Bennett's efforts "very supportive."

In a "talking point" paper distributed by the AWBC to centers nationwide, the association maintains that "if Congress does not legislate any additional reserve, the current reserve for the sustainability program at 30.2 percent provides awards for 53 grants at approximately $71,226. Many centers will face closure if the grants are cut to this level."

Mitchell declined to speculate whether a funding cut at the Salt Lake Women's Business Center will mean closure. However, she said, "we'd definitely have to cut our services. We probably wouldn't do the one-on-one counseling that we do now."

"What does $60,000 or $70,000 pay for? Rent. A person's salary and benefits. That's a big deal. . . . Currently we have a staff of three people."

Stan Nakano, director of the SBA's Utah district, said the agency's position is not to continue funding on the sustainability centers.

"The agency is saying that they clearly support women business ownership, and these women's business centers, but they're also saying that once we go through the five-year period of providing funding for these centers, they should be able to sustain themselves and create enough program impact to be self-sustaining," Nakano said. "In Nancy's case, we've been giving them another five-year round of sustainability grant money."

Still, Nakano said, the possibility of a diminished or defunct Women's Business Center isn't pleasant to consider.

"These centers provide a valuable service to small businesses, and in particular, women-owned businesses," Nakano said. "And, to have a partner like the chamber is very good for our community, because they bring their members in to participate in the center. It provides everything from developing business plans -- the nuts and bolts of starting a business -- to access to financing for a lot of businesses. For us to see it go away would not be a good thing for our business community."