Detroit area business leaders and economic development officials gathered Wednesday at a startup hybrid powertrain company in Auburn Hills to hear how the U.S. Commerce Department is making it easier for entrepreneurs to find government help.
Commerce Secretary and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke said the 10-month-old pilot project for Commerce Connect — an office that links small business with government resources, grants and other assistance at all levels, federal, state and local — had been a success.
He said Commerce Connect had aided more than 90 businesses on everything from patent and intellectual property protection to export promotion to operating efficiency.
As a result, he said Commerce Connect would move to a new, larger, permanent home at the Commerce Department’s Export Assistance Center in Pontiac.
“I have a lot of friends who are small business owners, and they don’t have time to navigate the federal, state and local bureaucracies,” Locke said. “Businesses spend all thehri time trying to find new customers, trying to meet payroll and keeping their customers happy. So we reach out and bring the government services to them.”
Locke said Commerce is also establishing a pilot call center and an expanded Web site at www.commerceconnect.gov to provide more information and resources to businesses. He said Commece Connect is staffed with specialists that act as caseworkers for small business.
One satisfied Commerce Connect customer spoke — Terry Palmer, president and COO of Tri-Tech Engineering LLC in Wyandotte. He said his company, which makes pneumatic and hydraulic cylinders, had seen $250,000 in new business through Commerce Connect, allowing it to add four jobs.
Hosting the event was Alt-e, founded by former staffers of the short-lived Tesla Motors engineering center in metro Detroit.
The company engineers, integrates and assembles electric hybrid powertrain kits. It’s waiting on financing from federal and private sources to go into full production — but at this point it’s planning to add 305 local jobs over the next year, and plans to spend $1.6 billion on equipment, which will create anohter 1,100 jobs among suppliers.
The powertrain kits will be sold to fleet operators to replace vehicles’ aging V8 engines, as well as to auto- and truckmakers.
Alt-e CEO John Thomas said the company’s products turn 7- to 11-mpg gas- and diesel-guzzling taxis and trucks and turns them into 40-mpg wonders of efficiency.
A cost-benefit analysis provided by the company showed a five-year payback of $20,116 on the $20,000 cost of a conversion kit for a half-ton pickup truck driving 15,000 miles a year, and $98,303 five-year payback on the $27,500 cost of a conversion kit for a shuttle bus driving 30,000 miles a year.
Alt-e’s location is a former Lear Seating plant that’s been vacant about five years.
Locke used Alt-e as an example of hope in the American economy.
“I know times are tough, I know people are concerned about the future… (but) let’s remind ourselves that despite the challenges, America has a lot of strengths,” Locke said. “We still know how to engineer and design things. We are great at building thigns. We are great at creating businesses that can compete anywhere as long as we are given a level playing field.”
And U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Hills) used the occasion to defend the federal auto bailout, and call for passage of a $30 billion small business lending bill now stalled in the Senate.
“I know the (Obama) administration took an awful lot of heat from around the country… but I will say thank you, it was the right thing to help the auto industry, and we will have manufacturing in this country as a result of it,” Peters said.
He also praised auto suppliers’ moves to diversify into alternative energy and medical devices.
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