Interest rates fell to 6.6 percent for small business borrowers in the last month of 2008, according to a new survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). But the falling rates were a cruel mirage for many loan-seekers without a willing lender.

In 2007, the survey reported, the average interest rate paid on short-term loans was about 9 percent. Rates declined over 2008 reaching 6.6 percent in December.

Despite lower rates, loans are not in reach for many: the number of business owners who found loans harder to get grew to 12 percent, matching a previous high in 1991.

"If you're borrowing from a mega-bank," said William C. Dunkelberg, chief economist for the NFIB, "you probably can't get the loan, because they have a cookie-cutter model."

Paul Merski, the chief economist for the Independent Community Bankers of America, agreed. "The financial situation and capital situation for the largest banks is significantly worse than any of the community banks," said Merski, who suggests that small business owners may find a willing lender in community banks. "Community banks traditionally held higher capital levels. The conservative model actually has them in a better standing right now."

Merski pointed out that half of all small business loans under $100,000 are made by small banks. Of approximately 8,324 community banks in the country, nearly 5,000 are members of the ICBA, according to its website.

"We're a small part of the banking industry, but we're a powerhouse of small business lending," Merski said. "The real niche and specialty of small banks is relationship banking with small businesses."