Biz: OnTrack crisis worsens

That was the word from Executive Director Celeste Collins on Nov. 11, after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development once again turned down OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling’s bid for a critical $135,000 grant (see “The Biz,” Nov. 12 Xpress).

Eyes on the prize: Local “mompreneurs” Christen Ward and Kristin Keliher and their company, Honeywear Inc., have made the finals of Forbes magazine’s “Boost Your Business” contest, giving them a shot at the $100,000 grand prize. Photo by Jonathan Welch.

Exasperated by HUD’s bureaucracy, Collins says the rejection is ridiculous, especially in light of people’s need for the nonprofit’s services amid the current economic crisis. So what’s the problem? According to Collins, HUD maintains that OnTrack attached one supporting document to its online application that had a nonconforming file name, but she says she complied with every HUD requirement in submitting the application.

“Bottom line: One disputed file name for a single attachment has become the basis for refusing grant funding which provides help to the citizens of our region,” Collins asserts. “OnTrack will make one last appeal … but we urgently need help in finding alternative funding.

To that end, Collins has sent out appeals to U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, as well as Rep. Heath Shuler. Besides seeking help with the HUD fiasco, Collins asks if it would be possible to secure funding from the recent $700 billion corporate-bailout package.

“At this point I plan to let HUD know of the discrepancy between their records and ours, but I am not sure what good it will do,” Collins adds in her letter to the lawmakers. “After this one last protest, we/I will move on to find replacement funding. We have been and are continuing to review current funding, grant opportunities, actual expenses YTD and other ideas for balancing our budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. This is a serious crisis for our agency and the people we serve in Western N.C.”

The grant accounts for more than 10 percent of the group’s $1.1 million budget for 2008-09.

OnTrack (formerly the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of WNC) has been a HUD-approved housing-counseling agency since 1979, notes Collins, and has received annual HUD grant funding for more than 20 years. This time around, OnTrack requested the $135,000 specifically to provide services such as foreclosure-prevention counseling, reverse-mortgage counseling for elderly homeowners, and homebuyer education.

By the end of September, the group had already counseled 53 percent more clients who were either delinquent or in default on their mortgages than it did in all of 2007, Collins reports.
To donate to OnTrack, go to www.ontrack.org.
@buzzheadline:Mompreneurs inch closer to the prize

It’s a sweet time at Honeywear Inc.

The Alexander-based enterprise run by “mompreneurs” Christen Ward and Kristin Keliher is among the five final contestants vying to win Forbes magazine’s nationwide “Boost Your Business” contest (see The Biz, Aug. 20 Xpress).

Along with representatives of four other small companies, the duo recently gave a 10-minute pitch and endured a grilling by a panel of judges that Keliher believes they aced. “We walked out of there feeling really good about it,” she says. Now comes the online voting, she adds, where members of the public can review videos of all the pitches on www.Forbes.com and vote for their favorite. The online voting, which ends Nov. 30, will account for 50 percent of the final score.

The winner will receive $100,000—invaluable capital for a small business such as Honeywear, whose primary product is its innovative, adjustable Baby Bee Sling. All of Honeywear’s products are produced locally by a cooperative of seamstresses using organic materials. Keliher and Ward have developed a children’s clothing line that will also be manufactured locally.

“It was very intense,” Keliher says of the encounter with a panel of judges that included Forbes editors and executives, an investment banker, an executive from contest sponsor HP, and a handful of other high-level executives who peppered the duo with questions about their product, business plan, marketing and market share, and other key areas.

“It was a great learning experience, a great opportunity for us to talk about our company and to learn how to present in front of possible investors,” says Keliher. “And to top it all off, we got to go on a ride on the Forbes yacht around Manhattan.”

Although the judges mostly kept their feelings close to the vest, Keliher says they seemed impressed and generally lauded the product. One said he would try to get their sling on The Ellen Degeneres Show, and another said he was interested in the sling as a possible gift for his daughter.

Now comes the voting, which is largely out of the two women’s control. But Keliher says they’re pulling out all the stops to garner as many votes as possible before the cutoff date. That includes hitting all the local and state media they can reach, as well as employing some more guerilla-style tactics. “We’re both on Facebook, so we harass all our friends on Facebook and send mass e-mails to everyone and just talk. It’s like all we ever talk about to anyone at this point,” Keliher says with a laugh.

To vote for Honeywear, go to www.honeywear.net. Voters on earlier rounds may vote again.

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