Chamber, small businesses await federal grant

emoody@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 6, 2012 

Rowland Washington gets orders for his homemade gumbo from as far away as Germany, but what he really wants is to sell more of it here at home.

The St. Helena Island resident thinks an inventory of 500 cases -- each containing a dozen 32-ounce jars -- should be enough to meet the retail demands of stores such as Publix, The Fresh Market and Whole Foods.

Washington has a plan to take "We Island" Gumbo n' Tings from a catering/online/farmers market enterprise to supermarket shelves.

What he doesn't have is $2,300.

"We've been in survival mode for the first 10 years," he said. "We're trying to live and eat out of the business, and you have to be able to let the business stand on its own."

So last fall, Washington jumped at an opportunity for a small-business loan through a new program with the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber expected to receive $375,000 in January from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

Chamber president Larry Holman expected to start lending that money at the end of February, but it's been delayed.

"The money has been allocated, but they just have to get it out to us," he said. The USDA is "saying that's still going to happen. I just can't see the government promising something and then not giving it to us."

Now it appears the earliest the money will be available for loans will be the end of March.

The reason for the delay is not clear.

The office of state Rep. Ken Hodges, D-Green Pond, has called the USDA asking about the grant.

A spokesman at the USDA's Rural Development office did not have answers last week, but said the office is looking into it.

More than two dozen current and prospective local small-business owners are set to expand or get started, Holman said. Their plans vary, but their creators have one thing in common: "There's just different stories of folks who are just trying to hold on," Holman said.

Small-business owners often have trouble getting loans, he said, because banks shy away from small loans that are less profitable than large ones.

The chamber plans to provide loans ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 to "micro-enterprises" for startup, expansion or material costs, Holman said.

Startup business owners, or those in business less than five years, have to go through several weeks of financial literacy training before they are eligible for the loans.

Businesses would pay back the money at a rate to be determined, probably between 6 percent and 10 percent, Holman said. The payments would go back into the chamber's loan program, making additional loans available.

For now, the grant delay leaves folks like Washington in the lurch -- ready to move their business forward, but lacking the money. Washington said he can't get a bank loan but is looking into other options.

He's wary, however, of high interest rates or bringing in partners.

"I don't want to give away the shop just so I can get a few dollars," he said.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.

Related content:

Black chamber offering small loans to small businesses, Nov. 14, 2011

Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce

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