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Wilmington Strong fund grants $98K to small businesses

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The Wilmington Strong fund has made its first disbursements of nearly $100,000 to city small businesses. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON ALLIANCE

WILMINGTON – A coalition of nonprofit partners announced Wednesday that they have disbursed $98,000 in grants to 98 city small businesses through the first phase of the Wilmington Strong fund.

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 to support small business owners affected by the COVID-19 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 has been supported through other fundraising efforts, such as sales from Spaceboy Clothing and Franks Wine. The organizers hope to disburse as much as $300,000 through the fund this year.

Unlike other types of financial aid, such as the Delaware Division of Small Business’ HELP loans or the U.S. Small Business Administration’s PPP or EIDL loans, the Wilmington Strong fund’s $1,000 grants do not have to be repaid. The funds can cover expenses such as rent, mortgage payments, utility and supplier bills.

The program also gives priority to Black and Brown small business owners, and the demographics of the first disbursements show that it has been successful. Of the 98 recipients, 67% of awards went to minority business owners, 51% went to women-owned businesses, and 83% of grant recipients have revenues less than $200,000. The awardees also represent a diverse cross-section of industries, including restaurants, retail, construction, and professional services.

One of the assisted business owners was Eunice LaFate, owner of LaFate Gallery on North Market Street, who called the grant “a lifesaver.”

After the pandemic-spurred restrictions essentially closed her 5-year-old gallery, LaFate said that she wasn’t sure how 2020 was going to play out. She applied for several other grants but never heard back.

“In the early stage [of the pandemic], I was so disenchanted but when Wilmington Strong came forward it was a boost to my morale,” she said, noting the $1,000 was used to pay rent and purchase some advertising for her upcoming anniversary sale.

Since getting the grant, LaFate said that a “miracle” sale of four original paintings to a single patron and the support of the Buccini/Pollin Group and Kenny Family Foundation for her youth painting classes has helped keep her doors open and her spirits high.

Like LaFate, 80% of awardees reported that the grant increased their confidence in keeping their business open and only 5% a state HELP loan, 29% received a PPP loan, and 18% received an EIDL loan.

“Across Delaware, small businesses were hit particularly hard by this pandemic, and to make matters worse, many of these businesses did not qualify for federal aid,” said Jenn Cho, head of citizenship at Barclays US Consumer Bank, said in a statement about the grants. “The Wilmington Strong Fund extended a much-needed lifeline to businesses that are struggling to persevere. It is essential that we all come together to support these small business owners that represent the heart of our community.”

Renata Kowalczyk, CEO of the Wilmington Alliance, said that she’s been encouraged by the first recipients’ stories. The coalition of partners is now preparing how to keep supporting the businesses into the future though.

“The theory is that COVID-19 is not a sprint, but it’s a marathon and it’s going to stay with us for a while,” she said. “One thousand dollars is great to stop the bleeding, but we’re planning for the future.”

Kowalczyk said that conversations are beginning about how to best support city small businesses even after the pandemic subsides. Much of that guidance is around the development of e-commerce necessary for businesses to survive and thrive.

Applications for phase two of the fund are now being accepted. To apply for the fund or to donate, visit www.WilmingtonStrongFund.com.

By Jacob Owens

[email protected]

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