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A Leg Up

The Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region offers local entrepreneurs much-needed resources for starting and expanding business

by Ali Hibbs on March 31, 2011 · 1 comment

Community Loan Fund of the Captial Region

Photo by Alicia Solsman

Lissa D’Aquanni admits that she didn’t really know what she was doing when she decided to turn her talent for making all-natural chocolate-dipped fruits, truffles, buttercrunch and fondants into a full-blown business 12 years ago. “It was a start-up. I was still in my basement and I needed to buy a chocolate kettle and some molds.” She was grateful when a supportive neighbor put her in touch with a local nonprofit community lending organization to help realize her modest goals. The organization loaned D’Aquanni the $5,000 she needed and also provided her with access to technical and training resources for new business owners. Over the next four years, her business doubled annually.

Known until recently as the Capital District Community Loan Fund (the name was changed this year to reflect an emphasis on community), the Community Loan Fund was formed in 1985 as a nonprofit financial institution with a specific mission: to invest in social and economic development opportunities benefiting the region’s many and diverse communities. By pooling money from philanthropic donors and socially concerned investors, the organization has facilitated loans totaling more than $25 million over the last 25 years, resulting in more affordable housing, more minority- and women-owned businesses, new local enterprises and almost 1,000 new jobs throughout the region. “We like things that are local,” says Paul Stewart, director of training and technical assistance. “Locally owned, locally based and controlled. We also really like things that are focused on people needs.”
Two years after her first loan, D’Aquanni was ready to expand the Chocolate Gecko. “I was at that point where business advisors were telling me that maybe I should get a kiosk at the mall,” she remembers. “And it was just not what my business was about. There was this building in my neighborhood that had been abandoned for years and I had always loved it. It was an old headstone factory, this gorgeous building that just needed love.” D’Aquanni did the math and decided that the renovation project would require an investment of $250,000. Then she called the Community Loan Fund again.

“The most they could lend me at the time was $25,000, because that was their maximum for an expanding business, but the greatest thing about it was that it gave the project credibility. It told the other financers that I was not on my own, and that I had backing for technical assistance as well as financing. They came on board and we were able to do the project.”
In 2007, after more than a decade as a chocolatier, D’Aquanni decided that she wanted to return to the nonprofit sector and work with other aspiring microentrepreneurs. She sold the Gecko and found a new job as the Director of Community Relations for the Community Loan Fund.

The building D’Aquanni now works in at 255 Orange St. in Albany is unimposing and easily accessible. The offices on the first floor are simple, open and friendly. Stewart believes that the location lends a sense of comfort to potential borrowers. “We find that, for many folks, our setting here in the Arbor Hill/ Sheridan Hollow neighborhood is a friendlier place to come than maybe going to Corporate Woods or working with a government agency.”
According to Stewart, they moved into this location more than a decade ago to become partner tenants with a complementary nonprofit “business incubator” called the Albany Center for Economic Success, which provided space and training to small-business owners— specifically to women, minorities and low-income individuals. ACES and the Community Loan Fund found that working together added significantly to the variety of services that they were able to offer to aspiring microentrepreneurs. (Last year, ACES became an official subsidiary of the Community Loan Fund.)

Today, the Community Loan Fund specializes primarily in small business and microenterprise loans to women, minorities and low-income individuals, as well as lending to nonprofits dedicated to providing affordable housing, social services or community revitalization. Additionally, they offer loans to both nonprofits and small businesses to become more energy efficient, and will work to facilitate participation loans—like the one that allowed D’Aquanni to expand her business—when they are unable to provide all of the needed capital. They work with approximately 50 projects a year, and last year loaned more than $3 million to various enterprises. Successful investments include a museum, a dry cleaner, a homeless shelter, a medical practice, a bed and breakfast, and even a buffalo farm. This Friday is opening day for another Community Loan Fund-assisted endeavor: Two Twisted Ladies, a brand new ice cream shop in Greenville.

The process is simple. Borrowers are expected to come up with a viable business plan and demonstrate preparedness, as well as pass a credit check and provide some kind of collateral. Stewart says that a board then reviews the loan requests. “They try to look at the big picture. If someone has an impressive amount of experience but is not great at putting together a business plan, they will take that experience into account. The fact is that we can provide the tools, but we can’t do all of the work. We need to see a real commitment.”

Last summer, Mary Wheeler opened a new art studio at 200 1st St. in Troy. A longtime local jewelry maker and arts instructor, Wheeler says she dreamed of owning her own studio for a decade. She found the Community Loan Fund when she called the city in search of information for potential small-business owners. “Artists aren’t always the best at business, you know,” she says good-naturedly, “at knowing what they need or what to do. They helped me with the loan application and all that stuff.” Today Wheeler operates Art!, a gallery featuring varied local artists, with a room dedicated to revolving shows and a functional studio for those who may not have equipment or space of their own. She also teaches classes there.

Highlighting the amount of work that she put into the renovation, Wheeler says that she didn’t have much time to attend classes or workshops during the “whirlwind” of opening. “But I’ve been to some since. It was the one-on-one, the sitting down and really reviewing everything—my proposals, my projections and all that—that really helped.” Wheeler, who had known D’Aquanni previously, said she felt immediately comfortable with the staff at the Community Loan Fund. “It was like family, you know?”

Now, as well as operating her studio, Wheeler occasionally makes use of her abandoned accounting background to help teach financial courses to other small-business hopefuls. Classes (held in partnership with the College of Saint Rose) include topics like marketing, financial management, legal and insurance issues, real estate and accounting. In addition to an eight-week business-planning course, the Community Loan Fund offers ongoing technical assistance in the form of special workshops, one-on-one consulting, legal clinics and other referrals. A matched savings program even provides incentives to those who participate in financial literacy training and a predetermined savings program.

“The classes and workshops were a real lifeline for me,” says D’Aquanni, who now teaches the occasional marketing course. “Opening your own business can get kind of lonely. I spent a lot of time in my basement, and the workshops were sometimes my only real outings.”
As well as facilitating access to a broad network of other compatible services, the Community Loan Fund supports a small community press and works closely with the Capital District Homeownership Collaborative. The small staff is supported by a number of volunteers sitting on committees and volunteering individual services and/or skills. Financial donations are accepted and potential investors are given the option of choosing among different terms and rates (0, 1 or 2 percent).

D’Aquanni and Wheeler agree that the Community Loan Fund has remained surprisingly obscure, considering the resource it represents for residents of the Capital Region. “Luckily, the city told me about it,” says Wheeler. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise. But, I’ve told a lot of people and I can’t say enough nice things. The things that you have to jump through for a beginning businessperson are really incredible—impossible almost. They really understood that. It was fast and it was easy and you know they’re there for backup if you need them. I’ve gone to them for everything from help with graphic arts to finding a plumber.”