Loans go to AK hunting guides, air taxis

Thirty Alaskans were OK'd for $3.4 million in federal assistance

Posted: Friday, September 09, 2005

Big-game hunting in Alaska is about as far removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as Two Rivers is from New York.

But Two Rivers guide Joseph Letarte, 3,248 miles from Ground Zero, got a $20,000 federal loan to keep his Wilderness Enterprises from going under.

Letarte is one of 30 Alaskans who were approved for $3.4 million in loans under a federal program for businesses directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. Twenty-eight loans were paid out in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $500,000.

They include hunting and fishing guides, a heliskiing company, an experimental aircraft dealer, a hot springs resort, an air taxi service, travel agencies, recreation guides, seafood processors, transport companies, a computer systems company, tour operators and a gift shop.

As the four-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, the results of the loans from the Small Business Administration have been mixed. Some companies have closed. Others sold out. Nearly a quarter of those who took loans have defaulted. Their homes, property or whatever inventory they put up for collateral could be seized.

Each loan illustrates the reach Sept. 11 had on small businesses across the nation. When the World Trade Center disaster shut down air traffic across the country, Letarte lost a month of business - crippling for a hunting and outdoor recreation guide whose income comes just one season a year.

Besides taking clients to hunt bear, moose and other Alaska game, Letarte makes his living taking cruise ship tourists on river floats and scouting potential sites for film producers. He said his business took two years to break even after the attacks, and he just turned a profit again last year.

"To lose a whole month was devastating," Letarte said. "The money was used to help supplement the loss. Without it, we probably couldn't have stayed afloat."

Similarly, Darrell Needham of North Pole depended on tourists for his air taxi service. He flies hunters and fishermen out to the Bush on their dream vacations angling for salmon or tracking sheep, caribou, mountain goats and grizzlies. When air space was closed after Sept. 11, half of his customers were stuck in the Bush. The loan, $20,000, was just enough to pay his bills for the rest of the lost year, he said.

But unlike Letarte, Needham's business didn't make it. In 2002, Needham didn't have enough customers to pay for insurance. He shut the business down but was still stuck with the loan. He refinanced his house to pay it off. He's now working in construction and has no intention of going back to flying for a living.

"The small operator like I was, the one-man operation, you make a year's salary in six weeks. And when you don't make that, you don't recover," Needham said.

Arctic Sparrow Aircraft of Anchorage, which sold and repaired ultralight airplanes, received a $5,000 loan when its business tanked and one of its two employees, Lanse Welsh, was called up for active duty in the Coast Guard.

Welsh said the business was turning around in 2003 when owner Mike Jacober died in an ultralight training plane crash. Arctic Sparrow died with him, Welsh said.

"There wasn't anybody there to operate the business," Welsh said.

One business owner was approved for a terrorism loan but he decided the price was too high. Kevin Tennant, owner of Expressway Oil & Lube and Expressway Auto Glass in North Pole, was called up for duty in the National Guard after the terrorist attacks. He left the business in the hands of his wife while he served at Eielson Air Force Base.

The SBA loan seemed to be the only option to counter the loss to his business. But he decided to ride it out without the loan when he found out what he would have to use as collateral.

"They wanted me to sign over my house. I told them to get bent," Tennant said.

Anchorage computer systems company E-Terra topped the list of borrowers with a $500,000 loan. Several calls made by The Associated Press to E-Terra for comment were not returned. Valdez Heli-Camps Inc. got $196,600. Its owner also declined to return calls.

Other big borrowers include Chandler Corp., an Anchorage hotel company that received $351,000; Pacific Star Seafoods of Kenai, $320,800; Bettles Lodge, $310,000; and Chena Hot Springs Resort, $220,800.

Qualifying businesses were eligible for SBA loans of as much as $1.5 million with a maximum interest rate of 4 percent. Nationwide, more than $1.2 billion in loans were approved between September 2001 and September 2004. An expansion by Congress created the Supplementary Terrorism Activity Relief program which lent an additional $3.7 billion to small businesses.

Of the 30 Alaska loans, 24 are SBA economic injury disaster loans, the first category. Four are in the supplementary program. Two went to military reservists.

SBA spokesman Rick Jenkins of Sacramento, Calif., said seven of the 24 Alaska loans the SBA's disaster office tracks have been repaid. Eight are still outstanding. Two loans were canceled at the borrowers' request and seven are being liquidated, he said.

Jenkins said the loans and the conditions under which they were approved are very individualized, but said each went through a thorough application process before being approved. The Associated Press has made a Freedom of Information request for details of the criteria used for deciding the businesses that were hurt by the terrorist attacks.

"It's 2,500 miles from the World Trade Center, but this unfortunate event extended all across the country," Jenkins said.

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