WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) today introduced legislation that would help preserve and strengthen the Small Business Administration's Women's Business Center (WBC) program. The Women's Business Centers Sustainability Act of 1999 would ensure that there is adequate funding of the WBC program to preserve effective, established centers and help fund new centers.

"The Women's Business Center program has been enormously successful in addressing the needs of the needs of women who want to start or grow their businesses," said Kerry. "However, the fact is that many of these centers are having difficulty raising funds due to increasing bank mergers and corporate downsizing. This bill gives WBCs a fair way to sustain the level of services they provide to women owned businesses."

The Kerry bill would allow WBC's to reapply to this program after they have completed their five-year term. In addition, the bill would raise the authorization of appropriations for fiscal years 2000 and 2001 from $11 million to $12 million per year, and reserves 40 percent of funds appropriated for these applicants.

The WBC program was started by Congress in 1988 in response to hearings that revealed the Federal government was not meeting the needs of women entrepreneurs. They faced discrimination in access to credit and capital, were shut out of many government contracts and weren't getting the kind of business assistance that they needed to compete in the marketplace. There are now 59 centers in 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In Massachusetts, where 147,000 women-owned businesses account for over one-third of all businesses, the Center for Women and Enterprise, funded through the WBC program, has worked to empower women to become economically self-sufficient through entrepreneurship. Since its inception in 1995, the center has served more than one thousand women business owners -- one third of whom are minorities. One hundred cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts are benefitting from the programs and activities available at the Center.