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Hoping to cook up jobs with help from angels or Obama

  • Story Highlights
  • Five years ago, entrepreneur turned old mule stable into successful restaurant
  • He'd like to open second location but credit history is hurting ability to get loan
  • After the financial system crashed last fall, lenders are more discriminating
  • $35,000 emergency stimulus loans for small businesses are now available
By Christine Romans
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LUMBERTON, North Carolina (CNN) -- Want to create jobs? Restaurant owner Rob Redfearn says send some stimulus money his way and he would create 50 jobs within three months.

Today the low-country fare restaurant has a bustling bar on weekends and a dependable banquet business.

Rob Redfearn would like to open a second location of his Black Water Grille in North Carolina.

Redfearn is the owner of Black Water Grille in Lumberton, North Carolina, a town of about 20,000 in the southeastern part of the state, just off I-95.

In 2004 he turned a century-old mule stable into a state-of-the-art, Lowcountry fare restaurant with 35 employees, a bustling bar on weekends and a dependable banquet business.

He got his hands dirty at every step -- demolition, design and drywall -- and five years later has beaten the brutal restaurant industry odds.

"We did $1.2 million [in sales] in 2007," Redfearn says on a tour of his sprawling brick building. "Not bad for a small town and a small restaurant."

He says his business margins are rock steady, fixed costs relatively stable, managers well trained, systems, controls and paperwork all well honed -- and now it's time to expand.

He has picked a location 35 miles up I-95 in Fayetteville. It's a bigger town, and he estimates the spillover alone from the big chain restaurants would sustain another Black Water Grille location. He needs $150,000 for property improvements and operating funds.

"Virtually every day I'm calling somebody ... to find this loan," he said. "I've looked at all the major banks, other sort of nontraditional lenders, higher rates of interest. I've looked for sort of angel investors, because I don't mind giving up equity in the projects in exchange for just a pass to get it going." Video Watch Redfearn discuss his efforts to find financing »

He's so passionate about getting loans to small businesses that he wrote to President Obama -- and to CNN. So we went to Lumberton to meet him.

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Sitting at a dining table, he makes his case.

"There's an issue here. You all want to loan money and see the economy stimulated but it's not happening, and there's a disconnect between Washington wanting to give this sort of loan, this money, and people like me, and I'm sure there are millions of people like me who need it, want it, could use it and really develop it."

He says he could pay his loan back in a year. If Washington wants jobs created with stimulus money, he says, he can create them.

"I don't want a bailout, I just want an open to the door. I'll walk through it myself."

So far, that door is shut.

The credit score problem

Turns out, Redfearn's confidence and credit history don't match.

We asked a major small-business lender in the southeast, BB&T Bank, whether Redfearn would qualify for either a commercial loan or one backed by the Small Business Administration.

"He is not representative of qualified small-business borrowers," said spokeswoman A.C. McGraw. "And had he applied with us we would have turned him down based on his credit history."

She says BB&T has lent $48 million to small business in the past six months, but without better credit, the bank will not take the risk on Redfearn. BB&T recently repaid its own $3.1 billion bank bailout to the Treasury Department.

Redfearn acknowledges his credit score is "less than stellar" -- low to mid-600s, he says -- but says his track record shows he's an able businessman. And if the issue is creating jobs with stimulus funds, he says he's as good a candidate as anyone else.

"We're not going to create any jobs until somebody takes a chance," he says.

The new normal

And banks are not taking chances. Loans that may have been made five or 10 years ago are now hard to come by. A good business plan and cash flow but less-than-stellar credit once meant you still got the loan, only at a higher interest rate.

In Redfearn's case, $1 million in sales last year and a business degree do not trump creditworthiness.

"Lenders have returned to the old-fashioned lending standards," says Lee Cornelison, regional director for the SBA in North Carolina.

"They're making loans with the expectation that all of them will be repaid. Before maybe a lot of those loans will be resold, packaged and collateralized, and therefore the risk was spread so widely that it didn't matter."

Cornelison is talking about the now-moribund secondary market for loans. Loans were bundled and sold to investors, where the risk was spread around, allowing the banks to make more loans.

After the financial system crashed last fall, that market virtually shut down and has only recently showed signs of thawing. Lenders are leery of taking and keeping the risk when loans of all types are defaulting.

What that means for millions of small business owners is a more discriminating lender. There are fewer loans for only the most qualified applicants.

"Right now, small businesses need to be careful," Cornelison says. "If you're in business now, it's probably a good time to reassess your business model in light of current economic conditions."

The number of new small-business loans has dropped to less than half what it was before the recession. But the SBA says the stimulus has helped. The amount of money loaned through SBA's programs has risen 50 percent since February.

"At least the trajectory is in the right direction," Cornelison says. "If we continue on the path that we are on now, the expectation is there'll be a lot more loans made than there has been in the several months."

But be prepared to show a good credit score, cash flow, supplier agreements, and offer collateral, at a minimum.

Available $$$$ and how to get it

After months of delays, American Recovery Capital (ARC) loans are now available. The SBA is backing these $35,000 emergency stimulus loans for small businesses at a rate of 133 a week. A business must prove it made a profit in one of the last two years to qualify.

Two years into a deep recession, that is difficult for all sorts of businesses. And for the small business owners who tapped credit cards to pay bills during the recession, they are running into the sort of credit problem that keeps the big banks away from business owners like Redfearn.

"Everyone's been shaking down their credit cards to try to pull whatever they can out of there," says small business editor Stacy Cowley.

"A lot of people are turning to family and friends, going back to suppliers, seeing if they can negotiate with them for credit. Just really shaking the seat cushions trying to see where they can get it, because they're finding the banks just aren't there for them right now."

In Fayetteville, Redfearn stands in the parking lot of the empty former Chinese restaurant he wants to transform into a second Black Water Grille. Has he ever considered that it might not be a good time to open a restaurant, when consumers are so thrifty and banks so risk-averse?

He shrugs this off: "Entrepreneurs -- and I'm one -- we're risk takers by nature."


Redfearn won't concede defeat in his quest to get a $150,000 loan to expand his business and create jobs.

"It may not be this month or next month, but we'll get it. And it may not be this location. This location may dry up and move down the street, but I'm confident that we can do it."

CNN Senior Producer Elise Zeiger contributed to this report

All About National EconomyU.S. Small Business Administration

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