When Mecklenburg County’s Director of Economic Development Peter Zeiler was hired in 2015, one of his first action items was to bring in consultants to evaluate the county’s small business ecosystem. The findings supported a longtime proposal for instituting a revolving loan fund for small businesses.
During a press conference Monday morning, Mecklenburg County officials announced the launch of its small business loan program. Working with the Carolina Small Business Development Fund, the $2.75 million fund will make loans of up to $75,000 to qualified small and start-up businesses. Future loans will be funded by the principal and interest accumulated when a small business pays its loan.
“We saw that our financial community, for the most part, wasn’t serving the people who this fund is intended to serve,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who leads the commission’s economic development committee.
He continued, “[It’s] people who don’t need $100,000, they don’t need a million dollars, just give me a couple thousand dollars that I can invest, hire some people, buy some equipment, and get my business going. That’s who we’re looking for.”
Why it matters: The loan program was tucked into the county’s 2020 budget, part of an $8.1 million initiative to address racial disparities in Mecklenburg County.
Back in May, County Manager Dena Diorio told the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum that Mecklenburg officials have a “terrible” record doing business with firms owned by women and minorities — at least in some instances.
In addition to the loan program, Diorio said the county also would fund a study to determine why more county contracts aren’t being awarded to companies that qualify under Mecklenburg’s Minority, Women and Small Business Enterprises (MWSBE) program.
How do I qualify?
Qualifying businesses must be located in Mecklenburg County and bring in less than $1 million in annual revenue. The business owner must also have a 625 credit score or better.
Other program guidelines include:
- minimum cash reserve to cover six months of expenses for new/startup businesses
- no presence of bankruptcy in the past five years
- no open tax liens or unpaid judgments
- minimum debt-service coverage ratio of 1.15 or better
The press conference was held at Queen’s Coffee Bar, a small business located in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. Its owner, Raina Purvis, says the fund is needed and will give small business owners a huge advantage.
“There are loans out there available to help businesses, but the interest rates are so high that it makes it unrealistic to even bother,” she said.
Nearly a decade in the making
Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman George Dunlap said it’s been nearly nine years since he first brought the idea of a small business loan program to his colleagues. In 2008, he was inspired by the stories of a woman who wanted to bake cakes professionally but couldn’t afford to get a space and a man who needed to buy two lawnmowers so he could hire workers for his lawn care service.
“From that conversation, I went to talk to our then-County Manager Harry Jones who agreed to put forth $1.5 million in a fund that would create a small business loan,” he told the audience inside Queen’s Coffee Bar on Monday.
The idea didn’t get the five commissioner votes it needed for approval back then, but Dunlap is excited that now it has come to fruition.
For more information about the small business loan program, visit CarolinaSmallBusiness.org.