Small loans, big impact? Commissioners approve $50,000 for Mountain Bizworks microloans on party line vote

Buncombe commissioners voted along party lines April 1 to give Mountain Bizworks $50,000 toward a new microloan program that will help small local businesses get needed capital. The local business nonprofit will leverage the county funds to receive an additional $300,000 from the federal Small Business Association Microloan Program.

“The funding will help local entrepreneurs make their dreams and vision a reality,” said Eileen McMinn, chair of the Mountain Bizworks board. “We loan money to people who no one else will loan money to.”

In increments of $2,500 and up to $50,000, the nonprofit will use the funds to make at least 25 microloans to small businesses in Buncombe County over the next year, according McMinn.

“We’re committed to supporting small businesses, and this is a real way to do it,” said Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Ellen Frost, who helped put the plan together along with Commissioner Brownie Newman.

After evaluating different partner organizations and programs for months in the search for a cost-effective way to help small businesses, Newman said, “We concluded that piloting this program with Mountain Bizworks was a great way to go. … We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” If it’s successful, Newman said he’d like to see the county’s initial “modest” investment grow in the years ahead.

Frost and Newman were joined in strong support by fellow Democratic Commissioner Holly Jones and Board Chair David Gantt.

Interest rates will range from 7.5 to 11 percent. As borrowers repay the initial loans, proceeds will go back into the fund and be available for other loans, said McMinn. She estimates the average loan will be paid back in three to five years.

“This is so smart because it’s an investment now that will really grow in perpetuity, said Jones.

<h3>Benefits vs. risks</h3>

In response to questions about the risks involved from Republican Commissioner Mike Fryar, Mountain Bizworks’ Chief Credit Officer Brian Griffin reported that the nonprofit has loaned more than $7 million to small businesses since 2007 and has had a loan loss rate consistently under 2 percent. “It is really impressive,” said Griffin. In order to receive microloans, local entrepreneurs will have to meet a series of criteria. “There has to be some kind of sweat in the game for us to take it seriously,” said Griffin, noting that the organization regularly denies loan requests.

“We are very realistic about who we approve,” added Jaime Beasley, the organization’s small-business lender. He estimated that Mountain Bizworks loans have generated 3,000-4,000 local jobs over the last 25 years. “We are very proud of our track record,” he said. “These are not gifts. These are not handouts.” The roster of successful enterprises the organization has helped fund or train over the years includes LaZoom Tours, The Organic Mechanic, FLS Energy and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, among many others.

However, as the county heads into what is likely to be another tough budget year, Fryar still worried that giving the nonprofit $50,000 wouldn’t be a wise use of resources. “Maybe we can go down to the tax office and see if people want to give them $1 apiece. I work for the taxpayers,” he declared.

Frost quickly countered: “For people who want a small business realized, this is it. This is a blessing. For anyone to say this is wrong, have them get in front of a small-business owner who needs to get a leg up.”

Fryar also questioned the stability of the program as Mountain Bizworks continues to restructure after a liquidity crisis this winter forced it to cut more than half its staff and drop a number of educational programs.

“We are looking very closely at all of our programs to make sure they are cost-effective and sustainable,” McMinn responded. “It’s definitely sustainable.”

Meanwhile, Republican Commissioner Joe Belcher said he couldn’t support the deal because it wasn’t included as part of the community grant application process typically used for nonprofit requests. “If we would do it through that process, I think I could get behind it,” he said. The county’s nonprofit funding guidelines favor organizations that keep their administrative costs below 12 percent; Mountain Bizworks’ are closer to 15 percent.

But Jones told her skeptical colleagues they should approach the deal with the same importance and urgency that they give to economic incentive requests from large corporations. “We click our heels … and we are on it. I think it’s only fair to treat this money in the same way,” she said.

In the last year, commissioners have unanimously approved giving international corporations such as GE Aviation and Jacob Holm Industries millions of dollars in exchange for expanding local operations.

“When some of the bigger manufacturing projects come in, we’ve really gone to bat for those. … People often ask what’s the county doing for small businesses,” Newman told Xpress. “I think that’s a really good question. So we’re trying to put some ideas forward for what the county can really do to support and foster the small-business sector in the community, which is really where the majority of jobs will be created in the future.”

Republican Commissioner David King joined Fryar and Belcher in voting against the funding.

A version of this story appeared online on April 1.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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