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Officials meet to talk small business microloan plans

Photo submitted to Times Observer for publication A meeting of representatives from the Northwest Commission, Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry and Innovault, a co-working space planning to set up shop on the first floor of the PNC Bank building advanced the idea of setting up a microloan program for small businesses in Warren County.

The idea of a microloan program for small businesses in Warren County has been floating around the commissioner’s office for a few years.

It took a significant step forward after a recent meeting was held with representatives from the Northwest Commission, Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry and Innovault, a co-working space that is planning to set up shop on the first floor of the PNC Bank building at the corner of Second Ave. and Liberty St.

Commissioner Ben Kafferlin acknowledged the “idea has been kicking around for a few years” and suggested that the Innovault could be a “facilitating organization” for such a program.

He explained that the “fundamental idea” is to be a resource for those who are starting a small business and can’t raise capital needed – from $500 to $10,000 – amounts that “certainly are under the threshold of what traditional investment or traditional lending would offer.”

He added that there are “many entrepreneurs in this county that don’t have access to the relational or social capital that can help them” acquire financial capital. He cautioned, though, that the county is not in a position with the “relational capital to keep advising those businesses and make them successful. Innovault… may be able to have that relational/social capital that can make a financial investment work.”

Jill Foys, executive director of the Northwest Commission, said it would be “very, very difficult to provide technical assistance” and support for small business owners directly given the distance between Warren County and the Commission office in Oil City.

But Foys did suggest that the Commission “can help you on the management side of the revolving loan fund.”

“There just aren’t that many microlenders because it takes some work,” Foys said, noting that a regional effort wasn’t successful “because (we) can’t be in all corners.”

Phil Gilbert suggested the co-working space “could be more easily measured in weeks now” to its completion.

Jim Decker, president and CEO of the WCCBI, said the goal is to “foster and accelerate businesses.”

Decker suggested that seed money for such a program be split into a couple of pots, one focusing on short-term loans of up to 1,000 to address the concern businesses may face of needing “quick access to funds.”

In one possible format, the Commission would assist with vetting loans larger than 1,000 while those smaller amounts could be considered locally.

How would such a program be funded?

Decker suggested through philanthropy while Foys presented a federal grant option – Rural Business Development Grants – that could be used as seed money.

“This is a graduation process,” Foys noted, which Decker explained to mean that the goal would be to support businesses in those early stages to grow to a size where “they can go to the banks effectively.”

“Success for us is when they don’t need us anymore,” Foys said.

“I think we’re ready to take the next step,” Kafferlin said.

Local officials will be waiting for additional advice from the Commission before moving ahead.

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