WASHINGTON - Jack Wells had one thing on his mind last Thursday when he met a group of bankers: loans.
So did about 60 other small-business owners gathered for breakfast at the First Baptist Church, located in a tough neighborhood where boarded-up buildings stare emptily into the streets and drug deals and killings are all too common.
The meeting was designed to introduce the entrepreneurs to lenders, but it ended up serving as a microcosm of the creditcrunch debate: The bankers insisted they were willing to lend to creditworthy borrowers, while the customers maintained they couldn't get loans on any terms.
Mr. Wells, who has run a hair-styling salon for a year, told the 10 bankers in attendance, that he needs working capital. "If I had enough to renovate, it would attract more business. What can I do if the bank tells me you haven't been in business long enough?"
His comments were echoed by mortgage brokers, publishers, barbers, and convenience store operators.
Charlene Drew Jarvis, chairwoman of the committee on economic development for the District of Columbia, organized the seminar to highlight the problems of inner-city businesses.
"They can't get $5,000 and $10,000 lines of credit," Ms. Jarvis said in an interview. "They can't get loans, they can't get working capital. It gave me an opportunity to put the bankers on the spot."
For their part, the bankers said they were willing to make loans.
"We want to be a partner with you," said David Gatling, an officer of Signet Bank. "Any loan request you have, we are willing to sit down and talk with you. We are committed to the community and we are committed to you."
But the bankers made it clear they wanted good, solid credits.
"In the spirit of longevity, we want to make sure we do things right," said Fred Gibbs, assistant vice president with NationsBank Corp.
"We realize we are not going to be able to help everybody," said Karen J. Wilson, vice president of First American Bank. "What we want to do is find out first what you need and go from there."
While most of the business owners said they welcomed the opportunity to meet with the lenders, some groused that they were hearing tired promises.
Timothy Jenkins, associate publisher of a black-owned magazine called American Visions, asked the bankers where he could go for a loan. There was silence, until Roy B. Moss Jr., senior commerical lending officer with Industrial Bank, a black-owned bank, told Mr. Jenkins to stop by. No promises, however.
Sharks Taking the Bite
The seven-year-old magazine is something of a Smithsonian targeting Afro-Americans. It is stuffed with ads from McDonalds, DuPont, Nissan, Chrysler, and Seagrams. But the magazine operates in the red because it pays loan sharks 18% interest for money to keep it going, Mr. Jenkins said.
He said bankers won't bite even though he has offered to pledge collateral of $1 million in property, free and clear of all obligations. "It's just absurd," Mr. Jenkins said in an interview.
John P. Murchison Jr., president of Inter-City Mortgage Corp., came to the meeting looking for a bank that would warehouse mortgages he generates.
For 17 years Riggs National Bank warehoused loans originated by Inter-City, he said, but in the last year and a half he hasn't been able to find a bank willing to strike up a relationship.
"They look at the [balance sheet] and say, |You're not making any money'," Mr. Murchison said. "We say the reason we aren't making money is because we can't make loans."