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A venture in the right direction

The Economic Development Council puts small businesses in touch with help they need and nurtures their growth.

The business started two years ago out of Hamilton Rice's Beverly Hills home, where Rice took apart discarded computers to salvage the circuits, chips, precious metals and other recyclable materials and resell them to computer companies.

Computer parts filled his one-bedroom home and spilled out into three rented storage sheds.

"It was nice not having to get up early to leave (the house), but it wasn't for me," Rice said. "I wanted to grow this business."

And grown it has.

Today, Rice's Technology Conservation Group occupies between 12,000 and 15,000 square feet of warehouse space at the Meadowcrest development. Since January, his four employees have grown to 10, and Rice plans to hire five more soon.

Rice says his company has done as much business within the past five months as it did all of last year.

"We're looking at expanding in the near future," he said. "We're looking at opening offices in other areas to bring more materials into this county."

Rice's company tops the list of small business success stories recently compiled by the Economic Development Council.

The EDC usually makes headlines when it helps the big businesses, such as bringing Brown Schools to the area or trying to keep Pro-Line Boats here, but Executive Director Rick Jensen said about 90 percent of his time is spent nurturing the small businesses.

"This is the kind of business you like," Jensen said, referring to the Technology Conservation Group. "It's clean, it's quiet, it's all indoors. It's growing by leaps and bounds; it's making money and paying employees. That's what it's all about."

Like the other small businesses on the list, Rice said the EDC deserves some, but not all, of the credit.

The EDC put Rice in touch with temp agencies, insurance companies and bank officials.

"I think (Jensen) has cut down on the workload by putting us in touch with companies he already knows of," Rice said.

But Rice said he owes much of his success to Meadowcrest's developer Stan Olsen and general manager Linda Deptola, who gave him the space to expand from 1,000 square feet to more than 12,000 square feet in the past year.

"This county doesn't offer places to people that have 25,000 square feet," Rice said, noting that he will eventually need that much space. "For them to open a portion of this building for me to build my business, that was helpful. (Otherwise) I would have had to take this business elsewhere."

Other businesses on the list told similar stories, saying the EDC issued helpful referrals but was not the main group that helped them get off the ground.

"A lot of people don't understand what economic development is," Jensen said. "I don't build the businesses myself."

"I know the assets of the county," he continued. "I simply listen to what (the businesses) need, steer them in the right direction and monitor their progress."

Deborah Lowing, a former nurse, needed help taking over the Gift in a Balloon store in Crystal River. Jensen directed her to a book and a mentor from SCORE, a group of retired professionals who offer free business advice.

"When I went to Rick Jensen, I didn't know what I needed," Lowing said.

Lowing said Jensen was helpful, but she couldn't have done it without the guidance from her SCORE mentor, Arnold Goudreau.

"I can't believe that there's people who do this for free, on their own time," Lowing said.

Craig Klodzinski owns a company outside of Chicago that does natural stonework on fireplaces, floors and countertops. He plans to move his business to Citrus County next year and will hire three to five workers.

Because Klodzinski also plans to teach meditation and tai chi classes from his home, he needs to make sure he buys a home that is zoned for small business activity.

Jensen referred Klodzinski to builders who might need his stonework and to companies that need occupational therapist assistants such as his wife.

"He saved me a lot of phone calls of talking to the wrong people," Klodzinski said.

But he said much of the help came from the Realtor, referred by the EDC, who showed Klodzinski the entire county, including sites that could work for his two businesses.

Jensen said the EDC is fostering economic development by putting these companies in touch with other people or programs that could help them.

And he said he hopes to bring 50 small businesses, each with five or more employees, to the county every year.

"I love these small companies because they grow into bigger companies," Jensen said. "You get them started, you help them grow . . . and sooner or later, you've got another Pro-Line sitting there."