By Jerry Ackerman

The head of the US Small Business Administration, making her first official visit to Boston yesterday, was met with criticism that her agency needs to do more to help minority businesses. Critics asked the SBA to work to change government buying programs so smaller companies can bid more easily against large suppliers, and to expand its Empowerment Zone program to smaller cities such as Springfield, Chicopee, and Lawrence. At the same time, Aida Alvarez, who took over at the SBA in February, was lauded for promoting the agency's "microlending" program, which makes loans as small as $ 500 to individuals who want to start their own businesses. Alvarez toured Boston with US Senator John F. Kerry, ranking Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee. Their day began at a Dunkin' Donuts shop in Dudley Square that is one of a chain of five stores being financed with SBA-guaranteed loans. She and Kerry later met for more than an hour with more than 100 representatives of small businesses at the former Digital Equipment Corp. assembly plant in Roxbury, now used as an office for a city business assistance center and SBA activities. There, she acknowledged federal procurement policies work against small vendors. She said the Clinton administration is encouraging government agencies to reduce the size of individual orders so small businesses can better compete for orders.