Published June 23. 2014 4:00AM Updated June 23. 2014 1:13PM
When Pawcatuck-based cabinetmaker Bruce Powell received $60,000 from the state through its Small Business Express Matching Grant Program last year, his plan was to invest in tools and equipment for his AB Powell Wood Works, which in turn would allow him to hire new employees.
He purchased a spraying booth to finish furniture, an industrial vacuum, compressor and sanding table and hired three new full-time workers.
Since then, one of those employees has bought a house in the community and another has purchased a vehicle.
"We are employing people who are investing back in the area," said Holly Powell, Bruce's wife. "This program was just a perfect fit for us."
The program, through the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, provides loans and grants to small businesses to spur job creation and growth.
The Powells know there are critics of the program who believe the state is in no position to be doling out cash and loans to private businesses, but maintain it is an important tool to grow small businesses and improve the overall economic well-being of the community and state.
The Powells were already in the midst of a business expansion when they learned there was a chance they might be eligible for state help.
"We just knew there was probably small business money somewhere and that it would help us," said Holly Powell, explaining how the couple came to reach out to state Rep. Diana Urban, D-43rd District, to ask for guidance.
Urban and a customer at the woodworking shop, businessman Thom Ozycz, who had been a recipient of state assistance to expand his own semiconductor business, encouraged the Powells to apply. When the couple submitted their application for the state grant, they had already signed a contract to purchase an old furniture warehouse at 78 South Broad St. where they planned to relocate their business. They eventually paid $175,000 for the property and invested another $150,000 to renovate it to house AB Powell Wood Works.
"I think a lot of people don't understand, we had to match that money," Holly Powell said of the $60,000 grant from the state.
The property purchase and renovation investments more than qualified the Powells for the match, but even then, they explained, the state required a strict accounting of how the state funds were handled and disbursed.
To obtain the grant, they had to submit a detailed business plan and explain how they would spend the money and how they would create jobs.
The grant money had to be held in a separate bank account and a strict accounting of how it was spent was required.
But the effort was minimal compared to the returns, the couple said.
The grant allowed them to invest in tools and equipment for the new location and add jobs.
"My goal is to teach people the trade," said Powell, who was introduced to the craft of cabinetmaking in his native Jamaica when he was just 14.
"My neighbor was a woodworker, and when he was home on the weekends, he did it on the side," said Powell, explaining how he spent time with the neighbor and soon learned he had a knack for working with wood.
Bruce Powell met his wife, Holly, when she vacationed in Jamaica in 1989. The couple later married and lived there a few years before settling in Pawcatuck in 1992.
For six years, Bruce Powell worked at the former Guild Guitars in Westerly, but in 1999 he opened his woodworking business on Mechanic Street, where he stayed until last year, when he bought the old Rutman's Wayside Furniture warehouse on South Broad Street and relocated.
"AB Powell is a perfect example of how this program should work," said Urban. "A small business like this, that's been around and has a history and a fine reputation - I wish we could give them more money."
Urban has been critical of some aspects of the program, particularly the decision to give a combination grant/loan of $150,000 to a Mystic burrito shop that later closed.
"It's a legitimate question, should the state be picking winners and losers," she said, still skeptical of how the state DECD came to back Tyler Gilbertie and his Lazy Burrito businesses.
"The DECD acts like a candy store, throwing money out there, gotta get money out on the street, then things go bad like the taco man, and they say, 'Oh no, we can't throw it out.'"
Urban said when there are failures like the Lazy Burrito, it reflects poorly on the entire state program.
Ozycz, a metallurgist who met the Powells as a customer, said a state program helped him move his business to Connecticut and create jobs and opportunities for growth.
Bruce Powell, who Ozycz said does exceptional custom work, seemed an ideal candidate.
Urban agrees and said it is the AB Powells who should be held up as an example of how the program should work.
"They've created jobs, and Bruce wants to bring along young workers and train them. He wants to mentor young workers to learn this craft," she said.
While the majority of Bruce Powell's business is making custom cabinets, vanities and furniture, he said never turns down a job, even a minor repair.
An elderly woman recently called him to ask for help with an old armoire. Powell heard her out, then made an appointment to go see the piece. At the visit, he told her he'd be back in August to collect it, take it to his shop, and repair a broken leg and install a new bottom.
The woman was ecstatic, said Powell, telling him no one else would even call her back.
"I just feel a sense of satisfaction if I can help someone achieve what they want, and restore a piece and keep it in the family," he said, adding, "I just love what I do. I would not want to do anything else. There is great satisfaction for me, when I get a piece of wood in the shop, and then I see what the finished product becomes."