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Sarah Calhoun, owner of White Sulphur Springs-based Red Ants Pants, was the sole representative from Montana to a small business summit at the White House last week.

She spent Tuesday and Wednesday participating in panel discussions and attending forums with top policy advisers to the president.

“This has been an honor and a terrific platform to emphasize Montana’s unique opportunities at the national level,” Calhoun said in a press release.

The summit was organized by the Small Business Majority, a nonpartisan small business advocacy group run by small business owners.

Calhoun founded Red Ants Pants, a women’s work pants company, in 2006. She had attended a small business event in Washington, D.C. several years ago and was one of 100 small business leaders from around the country invited to attend last week’s summit.

Before the event, she invited other business owners from around Montana to send her issues or ideas to raise at the summit.

The three biggest challenges facing Montana small business owners, she said, are workforce development, rural infrastructure and tax code.

“As small business owners, we truly carry a huge burden of taxes,” she said.

Red Ants Pants contracts manufacturing of its pants to companies in Seattle, Denver and White Sulphur Springs, Calhoun said. But those labor prices and taxes are much higher than what companies who outsource their manufacturing pay.

So Calhoun stood up during one of the forums and asked White House advisers if tax incentives or other support is possible to help companies that manufacture in the U.S.

“They didn’t have a great answer,” she said, adding that changing tax code is probably a more complicated process than she envisions.

But the question did create some buzz around the room, and Calhoun said accountants and other business owners were approaching her afterward to discuss similar challenges when trying to keep manufacturing stateside.

“It is very refreshing hearing from other business owners that no one’s alone in the business challenges we’re all facing,” Calhoun said.

Despite not receiving a good answer, Calhoun said it’s encouraging to be able to bring real-world issues to policy makers.

“This is the way democracy should work in my opinion,” she said.

She said other discussions centered on federal support, including expanding federal funding for programs like the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center and any other support services for small businesses. The more support, she said, the more a small business would be encouraged to hire more employees.

According to the Small Business Administration, Montana has 30,641 small businesses and another estimated 120,173 self-employed workers. Those small businesses account for 99 percent of all businesses in the state, which employ 89.65 percent of all employment, the SBA website states.

Red Ants Pants employs two full-time employees, two part-time employees and several contract workers around the state, Calhoun said. Plus the music festival she runs employs two people year-round, eight people for six months and 70 people the week of the festival.

Calhoun said on Thursday that once she had a chance to recover from the trip she wanted to jot notes down on paper from what she learned. Then she wanted to start pressing the issue of tax incentives for U.S. manufacturing by writing letters to Montana’s congressional delegation and President Obama’s office.

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Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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