$5 Million Fund Will Help Minority Business Owners In Erie

By Jim Martin

Perry Wood, executive director of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, sees a couple problems when he looks at a minority-owned business like Learning Ladder Early Childhood Education, located in the 2500 block of Peach Street.

The first problem is there aren’t enough businesses like it. He said statistics show that minorities in Erie County own businesses at less than half the national rate.

The other problem, he said, is that Learning Ladder’s owners, like so many other small businesses, face challenges finding money to finance their ventures.

In a joint announcement made Monday with Bridgeway Capital, ECGRA announced a plan to address both concerns by launching the Erie Inclusive Fund, a $5 million fund to encourage minority entrepreneurship.

Wood said ECGRA is contributing $2.5 million to establish the low-interest loan fund that will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Pittsburgh-based Bridgeway Capital, a not-for-profit lender that will make 1 percent loans. The loans will be made in Erie County over the next three years with a commitment to invest half in minority-owned businesses.

As part of the announcement, Wood said Bridgeway Capital will launch an accelerator program, providing one-on-one mentoring and support for minority business owners. ECGRA provided $300,000 for the accelerator.

Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie Mayor Joe Schember and state Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-49th Dist., were among those at the announcement.

“This is a wonderful investment in this community,” Laughlin said.

Wood said the program is an outgrowth of Bridgeway’s Erie Urban Entrepreneur program, which was launched in 2015 that helps support community and economic development in Erie’s urban core.

Sean and Kenya Johnson got help from Bridgeway Capital in 2016 when they wanted to buy what was then a leased building where they had moved the daycare center they had opened in the basement of their home in 2013.

A $150,000 loan from Bridgeway allowed them to purchase the building they had been leasing, the former Forward Hall.

The investment by Bridgeway, which provides financing to businesses that might not otherwise have access to commercial funding, has paid dividends.

“The business is solid,” Sean Johnson said. “We are at 60, 65 children and 12 or 13 employees.”

“I never expected it to be this big,” Kenya Johnson said. “It was a blessing to us.”

Dahlkemper, who spoke in a room filled with the voices of small children and decorated by their efforts, said she has visited dozens of businesses as she crisscrossed the county for her 50 businesses in 50 weeks initiative.

Despite her best efforts to highlight diversity, she said, it was notable just how few were owned by minorities.

Along with others in a crowded preschool on Monday, Dahlkemper said she hopes this program will change that equation.

This article provided by NewsEdge.