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Wilmington Strong Fund gives out $151K, eyes future

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The Wilmington Strong fund has made its second disbursements of more than $151,000 to city small businesses. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON ALLIANCE

WILMINGTON As the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched on, a coalition of city partners has awarded 52 additional grants to small businesses totaling $151,000 after disbursing an initial $98,000 round last year.

Created by the Wilmington Alliance, a nonprofit tasked with growing economic opportunity in the city, and West Side Grows Together, a nonprofit that aims to create affordable housing and promote the revitalization of the city’s west side, the Wilmington Strong fund was created in June 2020 to support small business owners affected by the pandemic and the economic fallout that resulted from government restrictions. It grew out of an early effort by West Side Grows Together and Capital One that disbursed $10,500 to 21 West Side small businesses.

The city-wide fund is backed by $100,000 in match funding from Wilmington-based Barclays Bank and $150,000 from Comenity Capital Bank. Other fundraising efforts, such as sales from Spaceboy Clothing and Franks Wine, have supported the fund too. The organizers continue to raise money and seek out partners to continue the fund’s work though.

The 52 small businesses primarily used the $1,000 microgrants to cover rents or mortgages, inventory costs and utilities, according to the fund’s partners. 

As delta variant cases rise in Delaware, the vaccine rates stagnate and small businesses fear a return to the pandemic-induced slowdown, the Wilmington Strong Fund is not stopping, launching plans for a Phase 3 grant up to $5,000 per applicant. 

“We completed Phase 2 in July and we plan to stay,” said Renata Kowalczyk, CEO of the Wilmington Alliance, who recognized the uncertainty that small businesses in Wilmington face. 

Quincy Watkins, owner of two Milk and Honey coffeehouses in the city, was one of the recipients of a $1,000 microgrant, which he said helped give them a burst of confidence to keep going.

“Because of COVID, you lose almost 25% of your revenue and you still have obligations to others. That was really hard … we were unsure and maybe ambivalent if we were going to be able to continue. It was an uphill battle,” he said. 

Watkins said that he appreciated the Wilmington Strong Fund’s quick responsiveness and ease of application compared to other aid programs like the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which required more paperwork and legwork.

“It worked out very well and I really do appreciate the partnership that they offered because it was strategic. Sometimes you need a capital injection right away … To get something quick like that gave us a little momentum,” he said. 

With an uneven economic recovery for many small businesses, especially those in the city, the Wilmington Strong Fund recently launched a new phase aimed at helping them regrow sales.

“In the first round of the new Phase 3 … we had over 50 applicants. It just spiked like crazy,” Kowalczyk said, explaining that those who own multiple businesses can now apply for multiple grants to assist them in funding physical improvements or marketing efforts.

With an eye to specifically aid women- and minority-owned businesses, the Wilmington Strong Fund gave the majority of its Phase 1 and 2 grants to businesses in those populations, including 53% of grants to women and 63% to minorities.

The fund’s partners are not only looking at giving grants, but helping to support a full recovery for these businesses as well. They look to help every aspect of each business, including marketing, decorating or paying off their mortgage. 

“We wanted to learn from those 150-plus businesses as to what would be the next thing that could help them. We knew that we could continue giving out $1,000 microgrants and we still do, but [look for] other needs that those businesses have that we could help them with,” Kowalczyk noted. 

By Eden Cottone 

Contributing Writer

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