Innovation Ecosystem

When money talks, in a city divided by whiners and weiners

A new $500,000 revolving community loan fund launches, seeking to jump start new businesses in Central Providence

Photo by Richard Asinof

Supporters of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund gathered in the parking lot of Olneyville New York System on June 14 to celebrate its launch.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/20/22
A new revolving community loan fund seeks to put $500,000 of new capital to invest in the further revitalization of the neighborhoods of Central Providence – a big story that the local news media failed to cover.
What is the status of the re-procurement of the state Managed Care Organization contract, worth some $7 billion over the next five years, with roughly 350,000 Rhode Islanders now receiving health care through Medicaid? Why is it so difficult for the local news media to cover good news stories in Olneyville? Will the work of ONE Neighborhood Builders and its community loan fund be scaled up in other Rhode Island communities?
The efforts by workers at Starbucks in Warwick and at by workers at Seven Stars to unionize adds a new dimension to the efforts by The Boston Globe to capitalize on its expanded coverage of the food ecosystem in Providence. Much as with the health care workforce in a disrupted health landscape, it is the workers in restaurants – the waiters, the dishwashers, the line cooks and the barkeeps – who are responsible for whether a food enterprise succeeds, or fails.
Alcohol sales, much more than food sales, are what keep many restaurants afloat, particularly during times of pandemic. Abuse of alcohol still remains the leading co-morbidity of all opioid-related overdose deaths in Rhode Island. The high-pressure work demands of those who labor in restaurants only adds to the high levels of stress and anxiety.
One final observation. The capability of ConvergenceRI to cover live events remains as important as ever, given the rhinoceros herd mentality exhibited by many members of the news media.

PROVIDENCE – On a broiling hot Tuesday afternoon, June 14, a small crowd gathered in the parking lot outside the Olneyville New York System restaurant on Plain Street in Olneyville to celebrate the launch of a new revolving $500,000 community loan fund.

The target borrowers are to be small businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits, located in the 02909 or 02908 ZIP codes, who have 25 or fewer employees. The goal is to provide money at a rate of 2 percent, in neighborhoods where the difficulty in gaining access to capital has always been a major barrier, particularly if you are a woman or a person of color.

Proving your credit worthiness to Main Street banking institutions is an urban reality, not an urban myth.

How difficult is it secure access to capital? As difficult, it seems, as getting news coverage to report on the loan fund’s launch. There were no TV cameras or radio microphones or even newspaper reporters to cover the launch – only ConvergenceRI. Worse, there have yet to be any follow-up stories. Why is that?

Two days after the gathering at the Olneyville New York System parking lot to announce the launch of the new community loan fund, WPRI’s Steph Machado reported how a $7 million loan fund created by the city of Providence that targeted small businesses for pandemic relief, created by using federal COVID funds without any public input, had only given out approximately 8 percent of its money. The loan fund is set to expire in two weeks’ time, on July 1 – creating a mad dash to get the money out the door.

Not surprisingly, there was no mention in Machado’s story of the launch of the Central Providence Community Loan fund, with its focus on economic revitalization in Central Providence. Why was that? Are there two “different” Providences in play when it comes to divvying up loan money?

One way to answer the question is to follow the money. Out of the 229 businesses that had received checks from the soon-to-be-going-out-of-business city loan fund, more than half had gone to popular food and beverage establishments, according to WPRI. Which ones proved credit worthy?

Surprise, surprise, surprise. Many were well-to-do establishments inhabiting the Providence food-and-beverage ecosystem, including: Hot Club, Knead Doughnuts, Seven Stars Bakery, Al Forno, Geoff’s, Persimmon, The Sandwich Hut, Café Nuovo, Trinity Beerworks, The Coffee Exchange, The Oberlin Group, Capriccio’s, and Dave’s Coffee, among others. Is that the equivalent of red lining in housing lending?

For sure, it may be “unfair” for ConvergenceRI to call out the local news media for their failure to cover the launch of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund. Most of the media attention on Tuesday afternoon, June 14, was focused on the drama playing out at the State House – where three common-sense gun safety laws were finally being voted upon by the R.I. Senate, after years of the “hesitation” blues, if that is the apt phrase, by the R.I. Senate leadership, to allow the bills to reach the floor of the Senate for a vote.

Two all the way, with fries
The lunchtime crowd had thinned out by the time ConvergenceRI found a seat at the formica countertop of the Olneyville New York System, arriving early for the news conference, because of limited mobility issues. ConvergenceRI ordered the “big deal”: Two all the way, with fries, and a soda.

Being a skilled reporter, ConvergenceRI ate a late lunch and listened to the dialogue, eavesdropping on conversations, curious to learn what was on the minds of everyday Rhode Islanders, during a time of national catharsis [the ongoing Jan. 6 Committee hearings about the violent coup led by the former president to overthrow the U.S. government] and the State House passion play on guns [where, in the Senate visitor’s gallery, angry white men in yellow t-shifts kept threatening the persistent women in orange and red shirts].

A 10-minute elevator pitch
Here, then, is a blow-by-blow of what occurred in the parking lot, in what was a 10-minute elevator pitch for the community-based loan fund, with background music provided by a steady hum of vehicular traffic.

The introduction: “I am Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of One Neighborhood Builders,” Hawkins began, speaking at the podium with a mobile microphone rig. “One Neighborhood Builders is working in partnership with the Providence Revolving Loan Fund to launch this.”

Hawkins began by praising her team. “I do want to acknowledge the hard work of Grace Evans from ONE Neighborhood Builders and Jessica David a consultant with ONE Neighborhood Builders, who have really been facilitating this entire process.’

Hawkins then introduced the concept. “The Central Providence Community Loan Fund is $500,000 that will be re-circulated to support entrepreneurs and community builders who live or work in 02909 or 02908. [ZIP codes].”

The most important factor, Hawkins continued, “is that it is community controlled. You will hear from a couple of members of our loan fund about what community control really means.”

Hawkins then thanked everyone – some two-dozen folks – for coming. “And thank you for all the energy and commitment you have to making Central Providence a neighborhood that is welcoming and vibrant for all its residents.”

The story: The next speaker was Veronica Martinez, a loan officer for Centreville Bank, and a member of ONE Neighborhood Builders board of directors. She spoke first in English and then repeated what she had said in Spanish.

ONE Neighborhood Builders, Martinez began, “has a special place in my heart. I started my career in housing with this organization many years ago. I am super excited to be part of the loan committee. I am also a loan officer for Centreville Bank.”

And, as a loan officer, Martinez continued, “I am very aware of how difficult it is for some people to apply for loans and to be able to be qualified.”

Martinez spoke about the importance of how the loan fund would be able to move beyond traditional loan guidelines in disbursing money. Decisions, she said, were “going to be based on someone’s story – on their needs, their aspirations.”

In terms of aspirations, Martinez said she hoped to learn many new stories, to support the aspirations of new visionaries, to “grow their dreams.”

The pitch: Next up was Veronica Kingston, owner of Eagle Eye Post/Post Construction Services, who called it a “great day” to be announcing the Central Providence Community Loan Fund. Kingston serves on the loan committee of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund.

“As a new business owner,” Kingston said, “your biggest hurdle can sometimes be access to capita. Most institutions will not talk to you until you have built ‘worthiness.’”

Programs like this, Kingston continued, enable businesses “to learn how to build that worthiness – and hopefully to build that worthiness into relationships that allow them to succeed.”

Kingston then shared her own story as a small business owner, one who had started her business in 2018, using money form an investment. But during COVID, that money had quickly run out. A program similar to the Central Providence Community loan fund “helped me to keep my doors open.”

Kingston continued: “It helped me to learn how to build and to engage in building relationships with financial institutions.”

The neighborhood connection: Greg Stevens spoke next, the fourth generation owner of Olneyville New York System. “I started working here at the age of 15, in 1975,” Stevens said, telling the economic story of Olneyville’s rise, fall, and rebirth.

Manufacturing had been the heart and soul of the neighborhood, Stevens explained. “Then the 1980s came along, and industries moved away. The neighborhoods became depleted. With burnt-out homes, closed businesses, and empty storefronts.”

At that time, the Olneyville Housing Corporation [the forerunner of ONE Neighborhood Builders] was formed, Stevens continued. “They came in and started to redevelop these neighborhoods, they rebuilt the homes, and built new homes, and new businesses.”

Stevens called it supporting “the next generation of this neighborhood,” adding: “Everything evolves.”

Even in tough times, Stevens continued, programs such as the Central Providence Community Loan Fund solidify the neighborhood.

The closer:
Carrie Zaslow, the executive director of the Providence Revolving Loan Fund, which is partnering with ONE Neighborhood Builders on the creation of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund, served as the closer for the launch event.

The Providence Revolving Loan Fund, Zaslow said, was a nonprofit lender offering affordable loans “to help build wealth and to invest in neighborhoods throughout Rhode Island.”

Since its inception, Zaslow continued, “We have provided more than $42 million in investments and leveraged an additional $375 million.”

For Zaslow, the creation of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund was an example of listening to the needs of businesses and entrepreneurs in Olneyville. “We listened, we heard the need for funding for nonprofits and businesses, for residents of Olneyville in 02908 and 02909.”

Zaslow then stressed the importance of the working partnership with ONE Neighborhood Builders in the larger, economic context. “There are 1.1 million business in the United States that are owned by people of color and women,” she said. “They employ more than 8.7 million [workers], employees, and they put more than a trillion dollars into the U.S. economy.”

Zaslow was blunt in describing the potential answers from the loan committee from applicants: “We believe that there are only two possible answers – yes, and not yet.”

The beginning
The news conference ended, with Hawkins asking if there were any questions from the news media, looking at ConvergenceRI; I shook my head, “No.”

To sum up the news, community loans will range from $1,000 to $25,000 with a 2 percent interest rate for up to five years. Eligible businesses must have fewer than 25 employees and have a physical presence in the neighborhoods of Central Providence.

The supporters of the Central Providence Community Loan Fund then gathered for a group photo, illuminated by the bright afternoon sunlight. Indeed, the future in Olneyville looked so bright many were wearing shades.

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