Ask many people for the heart of their community, and they might well point to their main street or downtown.
Small, local businesses make these places what they are. A great café, interesting and useful shops, or reliable services like dry cleaners and tailors – businesses like these keep customers coming to the well-worn sidewalks of a successful commercial district.
Small businesses comprise an overwhelmingly popular sector of the American economy. According to the Public Affairs Council, over 90 percent of Americans have favorable views of small business.
But despite the love, running a small business is hard work. Margins are often tight. Maintaining buildings and updating lighting and signs often take a back seat to the day-to-day demands of business.
That might explain the strong interest in Metro's new Enterprising Places grant program. The program seeks to give business owners the boost they need to bring storefronts and districts to the next level – and in the process, help create more jobs and attract more customers.
"Programs like this help small businesses because they have more customers," said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington. "They help residents have more interesting and exciting places to enjoy time with friends and family. They also help communities be economically healthy by offering the kind of variety we like to have in neighborhood centers."
Two kinds of grants
The Metro Council has allocated $200,000 for Enterprising Places grants through 2015.
The program offers two types of grants, targeting historic downtowns and emerging commercial districts throughout the region – from downtowns like Forest Grove, Oregon City and Tigard to urban neighborhoods like Brooklyn, St. Johns and Rockwood.
District transformation grants could help a downtown or main street area create projects that help activate, promote or brand their district. Storefront improvement grants support business and property owners seeking to make direct investments to improve visibility and attractiveness to customers.
Metro planning and development director Elissa Gertler said the Enterprising Places program reflects Metro's desire to help sustain great places in addition to planning them.
"Our work is as much about implementing and partnerships as it is about planning," Gertler said. "This program allows us to give small businesses the opportunity to not just improve their physical appearance but to be more successful far into the future."
Interest has already been strong as the program launches. Thirteen storefront improvement grants and two district transformation grant applications were submitted before the program's first quarterly application deadlines.
Unique financial partners
A unique arrangement with two nonprofit community financial development institutions will help extend the program's impact. The Albina Opportunities Corporation and Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon, which share similar missions of supporting small businesses with alternative financing and advisory services, are partnering with Metro in the program.
Both organizations serve businesses too small to receiving financing from traditional lenders, and both have a history of helping minorities, immigrants, disabled people and others who have historically had trouble accessing capital to build a business.
Storefront improvement grants require a dollar-for-dollar match from the business or property owner. Small businesses that don't have these funds on hand can work with AOC and MESO to arrange loans or other financing strategies. These businesses will also have access to training and advisory services that improve their financial management and planning, building success over the long term.
Charles Funches, MESO's access to capital manager, said his organization seeks to ensure that growing diversity in the region is matched by increasing investment in entrepreneurs that have historically it hard to get credit and business training. "We address those unique niches by providing services tailored to populations that have been underserved," he said.
Funches added that MESO is excited to work with the Enterprising Places program. "We feel it's a great pairing for our clients," he said.
AOC founding executive director Terry Brandt said lasting relationships are key to his organization's approach to helping small businesses grow – and to supporting their communities. "Small businesses are anchoring communities,"; he said. "We see that as an integral part of what we do. It's about much more than loaning money."
The region is fortunate to have many thriving commercial districts in communities large and small, Harrington said.
"Throughout our region you can find amazing business and cultural diversity in dozens of great commercial districts," Harrington said. "That’s thanks to growth in local businesses, smart planning and programs like this that help catalyze opportunities. It’s a beautiful thing."
Program staff and the Enterprising Places steering committee will review the first round of applications in mid-March, and expect to announce the initial group of grants later this spring. The next quarterly deadlines are in April, July and November.
Learn more about the Enterprising Places program