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When banks balk, nonprofit offers another shot

Clintonville chamber hears about institute's loans to local small businesses

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The would-be owners of small stores, independent restaurants, day-care centers and home health-care businesses often find it difficult to secure loans from banks to get started.

That's where the Economic and Community Development Institute comes in, President Steve Fireman said last week.

Since its inception in 2004, the nonprofit organization has played a role in launching 2,000 businesses that have created more than 4,000 jobs, Fireman said.

Speaking at a quarterly luncheon of the Clintonville Area Chamber of Commerce, Fireman said the nine-year-old nonprofit development corporation, which has grown to be the seventh-largest micro-lender in the United States, can provide loans for the "under- and unbanked."

"I'm not here to rip on banks," added Fireman, who is also the institute's general counsel.

But bank officials often are reluctant to help out the first-time business owner, he said, and that's when the Economic and Community Development Institute steps in.

"We're the lender for everyday small business, for Main Street business," Fireman told the group of mostly small-business owners assembled for the gathering. "We create jobs one, two and three at a time."

Fireman, whose talk was titled "The Journey to Entrepreneurship," said the institute was limited to loans of $25,000 or less initially, but the current maximum is $350,000.

Interest rates range from 5 percent to 11 percent, he told his audience.

The institute differs from other lenders in that capital is far from all the agency offers, Fireman said. It also has a "suite of services" to help people start or expand an enterprise, including online information, classroom instruction and one-on-one counseling, he added. Once a loan is approved for a client, "we don't stop trying to help you figure out how to grow your business," Fireman said.

"In business, you have to have three legs of the stool to hold up your business," he said.

Institute officials help business owners identify the areas in which they are weaker; in general, these tend to revolve around marketing and managing cash flow, the chamber audience was told.

"Everyone thinks they're great with marketing, and they're not, and people aren't very good with cash flow," Fireman said.

In a sort of show-and-tell aspect of his presentation, Fireman invited as his guest Dr. Audrey Todd. The clinical psychologist told of how, after her son was diagnosed with autism in 2006, her research indicated a gluten-free diet might be best for him.

In 2008, she came up with the idea of creating a gluten-free bakery that would provide employment and training for people with autism.

Todd said she turned to the Economic and Community Development Institute, and within 18 months, Food for Good Thought was up and running in a former private home on North High Street. She said the institute has provided her with six loans in all.

"There's also so much else that they've done for us," Todd said. "We really have benefited in ways we could not have anticipated."

"It's our job to partner with the businesses we fund," Fireman said.

Based on successes in central Ohio, the institute was invited to expand into the Cleveland area two years ago, he added. Since then, the nonprofit corporation has expanded operations into Dayton and soon will add Cincinnati, to be followed by the Akron-Canton area.

"There's really nothing like us across the state," Fireman said.

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