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Opinion: New program funds minority entrepreneurs

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Five thousand dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to after pandemic-induced inflation. However, the carrots of five $5,000 grants generated an impressive 31 applications from entrepreneurs of various racial and ethnic backgrounds wanting to start or expand businesses in center city.

A new initiative, dubbed Ascend for Accelerating Springfield’s Commitment to Entrepreneurship, Networking and Diversity, is a collaboration among the Downtown Springfield Association, Missouri State University’s Efactory and the Multicultural Business Association to create new opportunities to grow minority-owned businesses.

U.S. Bank has a long history with DSA and quickly came alongside to support the Ascend program. The total pool of $25,000 in grants is funded by the U.S. Bank Foundation and will ultimately give diverse entrepreneurs a cash injection to help them achieve their business goals and succeed in our community.

Established need
The West Central Neighborhood – bounded by Chestnut Expressway, Kimbrough Avenue, Grand Street and Kansas Expressway – is one of the most diverse areas in southwest Missouri with 21% of its residents from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, fewer than 5% of downtown’s businesses are minority owned.

There continues to be a great need to recruit more leaders like Lyle Foster (Big Momma’s, Q Enoteca and Queen City Soul Kitchen) and Steve Williams (Crosstown Barbeque) to bring broader perspectives, tastes and services to Springfield.

The recent relocation of SAAB (formerly known as the Student African American Brotherhood) national offices to Springfield and the availability of over 30,000 college students creates a talent pipeline that must be more effectively tapped.

Applicant variety
The 31 applications represented the following industries: dining and nightlife (10), health and beauty (8), retail (4), marketing and business consulting (3), counseling (2), transportation (2), home health care and security services.

One of the main criteria for the awards will be having an active storefront downtown or on Commercial Street. This will connect these emerging entrepreneurs with neighboring business owners and fill key spaces to strengthen each district’s vibrancy.

While downtown has over 60 restaurants, some cuisines are underrepresented, but Jamaican, Cajun, soul food and Asian are some of the menus represented by applicants for Ascend.

Additionally, more than one of the health and beauty business owners noted the current lack of hair products for people of color and their commitment to fulfill that need.

The diversity of types of businesses is encouraging to bring a balance of services to center city.

Leveraging resources
With any new program, it is difficult to gauge how the community will respond. Receiving over 30 applications far exceeded expectations. Now, the challenge will be to leverage additional sources to maintain the momentum and help as many entrepreneurs as possible.

There are options. The Springfield Finance and Development Corp. has provided gap financing to center city businesses since 1997. It can bring creative financing options to the table to supplement conventional loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Also, the city of Springfield offers a commercial loan program with two financing options – microenterprise loans and business development loans. Both are tied to anticipated job creation over the first two years and have been used to support small businesses during center city’s revitalization since Vision 2020 was released.

The Efactory has been actively exploring opportunities to integrate Ascend with its 2022 cohorts of emerging entrepreneurs and its pursuit of federal stimulus investments. Stay tuned as Rachel Anderson and her team continue to secure more resources to support innovative business owners.

The Ascend team will conduct interviews with finalists over the next few weeks with awards anticipated by June 30.

If the program’s new grants, publicity and leveraged resources can be effectively harnessed with these dozens of emerging entrepreneurs, Springfield stands to reap major dividends over the next two years.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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