SBA speeds HUBZone application

Small businesses that want to participate in the Small Business Administration's HUBZone program can now use an enhanced online tool designed to make it easier to apply and less time-consuming to find out whether they've been accepted.

The new application includes:

Pop-up menus that direct applicants to online guides to help answer questions they may have. Notification when information a firm provides could disqualify it from the program. Automatic routing to ProNet, SBA's registry of small businesses that is used as a marketing tool for government contracting. HUBZone, launched two years ago, originally had an electronic application that was so unreliable it was scrapped for a paper-based process, said Betty Toulson, deputy associate administrator for the HUBZone program. With the new application, HUBZone's small staff of 11 no longer has to "go around chasing paper files," she said.

The office previously would need 25 to 30 days to process a firm's application and decide whether it qualified for the program, Toulson said. That time frame has now been cut to four or five days.

"It just makes the process easier," said D.J. Caulfield, western-area director for HUBZone. "We are much more responsive using this electronic environment."

Part of that responsiveness includes letting applicants know where they stand in the application process, Caulfield said. Every action taken on an application — from being received to assigned to an analyst and eventually approved or disapproved — is noted by a tracking system, and applicants can log in anytime to find out where they stand.

The new system's link to ProNet will provide opportunities that businesses may not have realized they had, said Dave Palmer, program manager for SETA Corp., McLean, Va., which developed the application. The new system's decision logic will notify a HUBZone applicant if it isn't in the ProNet database and will automatically take it to ProNet before continuing with the HUBZone application. And vice-versa: A business filling in information for ProNet will be notified if it may qualify for HUBZone, he said.

HUBZone is small business program designed to boost "historically underutilized business zones" — areas of low economic activity. In addition to being a small business, applicants must have their principal office located in one of those zones and have 35 percent of its employees residing in those areas. There are more than 7,000 such zones in urban areas, 900 in rural areas and at least one on every federally recognized American Indian reservation.

SBA is hoping to have 4,000 businesses signed up for the program by the end of this fiscal year. As of Monday, that number stood at 2,762, Toulson said.

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