Support Center aims to plug capital gap for small firms

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Three years ago, unable to keep up with growing demand for the baked goods she prepared for customers in her home in Holly Springs, Jackie Green turned to The Support Center, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that provides loans and technical support for small businesses throughout the state.

The Support Center made a $200,000 loan to Green, and helped her get technical support from the Small Business Center at Wake Tech Community College and the Raleigh chapter of SCORE, formerly the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Green , who used the funds and advice to move Sweet Cheeks Bakery out of her home to a retail location off Highway 55 in Apex and hire two staff members, says she now is on track to turn a profit by early next year.

“I would have not been able to do this without The Support Center,” she says

Founded in 1990 as The North Carolina Minority Support Center, the agency initially provided financial and technical assistance to a network of 18 small minority community-development credit unions, mainly in eastern North Carolina.

But four years ago, after the network of credit unions dwindled to 3 members, with two of them facing financial troubles, the organization rebranded itself as The Support Center and shifted its focus to small-business lending and technical assistance, as well as policy work on small business issues.

“If we were going to be viable and relevant, small-business lending was a great void” that needed to be filled, says Lenwood Long, who co-founded the agency with Martin Eakes, CEO of  Self-Help in Durham, and serves as its president and CEO.

Since 2010, The Support Center has provided a total of nearly $12 million in loans to at least 150 small businesses, supporting over 350 jobs. In 2013 alone, it made $6 million in loans, and expects to lend at least $9 million this year.

Small businesses generate over 85 percent of new jobs in the state but typically fail within their first five years, often because they lack access to capital and technical expertise on issues such as marketing, operations and matching supply and demand, Long says.

The Support Center has secured low-interest loans and grants from federal and state agencies, and low-interest loans and lines of credit from banks and other financial institutions, and makes low-interest loans to small businesses, mainly those owned and run by minorities, women and veterans.

Funds it has secured include nearly $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; $1 million each from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state of North Carolina; nearly $3.4 million from the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund of the U.S. Department of the Treasury; $500,000 each from TD Bank and Wells Fargo; and a line of credit totaling $1.5 million from PNC.

Over the next five years, it aims to secure $35 million. And it has set a $500,000 goal for its inaugural annual-fund drive, which kicks off Oct. 30 with an event at the Renaissance Hotel.

“This work is value-added to the state,” Long says, “and to the economic recovery of the state, and to small businesses as they look for capital they cannot receive from banks.”

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