Mecklenburg County is starting a small business loan program in its most recent effort to target racial inequity.
The county commissioners quadrupled spending on initiatives to reduce racial disparities in its budget for next year. The budget, passed on June 4, increased funding from $2 million to $8 million, with a chunk of the increase going to the loan program.
“There’s a lot of families out there and individuals that have great ideas and simply need access to a little bit of capital to change their lives, and we’re hoping this can help them do that,” said Peter Zeiler, the county’s director of economic development.
The $2.75 million fund will provide loans up to $75,000. That market isn’t served by any local institutions, he said.
Mecklenburg County Commission Chair George Dunlap said he has been pushing for a loan program like this for a decade. He said he remembers talking to a woman who wanted to bake cakes professionally but didn’t have enough money to get a space. This shortage of resources is common for a lot of aspiring small business owners, and it wasn’t going away, he said.
“There was just no where for them to go,” he said.
The program is going to be self funding, meaning interest on the loans will go directly back into the program to fund future loans.
Shante Williams, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce board chair, said she’s cautiously optimistic about the program. While she’s glad to see the county is making it a priority to directly address equity, she questions if the fund is enough.
She said a micro loan can help a business owner hire a new worker or pay for the rising cost of property taxes, but the fund’s total is “probably a drop in the bucket” for a city the size of Charlotte.
Dunlap said he thought the fund’s amount was sufficient.
“It was not intended to fund everybody who wanted to be funded all at one time, so I think that while everybody might not get funded the first cycle, as the money is being paid back, there will be money available for other people to get loans,” he said.
Greg Collier wanted to open his own restaurant as soon as he realized he wanted to be a chef. No place was cooking what he wanted to cook, and he knew he could never be the “model” chef — the kind who takes orders from the company and tries to move up.
Greg and his now-wife Subrina needed a loan to purchase their first space, but they couldn’t get one from a bank. Instead, they took $21,000 from Subrina’s dad’s 401(k) to open The Yolk Cafe in Rock Hill.
After being in business for seven years, they moved their brunch spot to 7th Street Public Market earlier this year because they wanted to expand.
The restaurant business is risky, and banks will typically loan to a business once it’s established, Greg said.
“Basically the money is available if you don’t need it,” he said.
They still remember the struggle of starting their business, and they said they hope the fund is accessible to those who need it, particularly African-American business owners, like themselves.
Though the fund is categorized under “reducing racial disparities,” Zeiler said the fund won’t exclude business owners based on race. Instead, he said the fund was created to address disparities between white and minority business owners when it comes to accessing capital.
The fund isn’t open to applications yet because details are still in the works, Zeiler said. An independent lending agency will manage the fund, and the county can’t sign a contract until the new budget goes into effect on July 1. The county plans to announce and roll out the program at the end of the summer.