Rural Impact Fund assists small businesses ineligible for bank loans

For the past six years, the Alliance for Rural Impact in Harrisburg has focused on delivering technical support to boost productivity and workforce development at small businesses in rural communities across the Delta Region, the Mid-South and extending from east Texas to the Appalachia region.

With federal support, the nonprofit organization is moving into the lending arena with a revolving loan fund providing financial support and investment opportunities to micro-enterprises and entrepreneurs in rural areas. ARI will provide multiple funding options for owner-operator businesses with fewer than 200 employees in the target region, with a focus on the Delta.

"Those are the businesses where we can really affect their productivity and their ability to compete globally," said Jamie Wright, co-founder and executive director of the organization. "Our focus is on the workforce side of a business to help those owner-operators upskill workers to pay them more."

Communities of less than 50,000 residents are a target for the organization, though most of the nonprofit's work has been to support Delta communities of about 20,000 residents. "There is such a need for assistance and capacity in small communities and that is our target market," said Jennifer Watkins, director of operations who started the group along with Wright.

The Alliance for Rural Impact was built to provide rural community leaders with services to help them implement strategic plans to capitalize on their investments in future planning. The organization crafts an approach that matches community needs with the expertise of other organizations nationwide that offer specialty services such as broadband, culture, disaster assistance and housing.

"We built this organization so that it is collaborative in nature ... in all areas of community and economic development," Wright said.

During the pandemic, community leaders were forced to focus on multiple issues outside of development, sidetracked with health and community safety issues. Economic development efforts took a backseat. "We kind of shifted our focus more to helping businesses," Wright said.

Businesses such as Cypress Valley Meat Co. in Pottsville, Natural State Processing in Clinton and Poinsett Turfgrass Co. in Harrisburg have benefitted from the Alliance for Rural Impact's support.

The Rural Impact Fund grew organically from those efforts and is a natural evolution to expand the organization's business-support efforts.

The fund gained designation as a Community Development Financial Institution and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing $500,000 in seed funding to initiate the loan initiative.

The new fund will provide up to $50,000 in loans per business for several key financing types, including providing gap financing, microloans, and other small business loans.

Businesses and entrepreneurs who have limited financing options and may not meet the requirements for traditional bank financing are ideal candidates for loans.

"If they can get a bank loan, they're probably not going to need to come to us," Watkins said.

Loans are available from $10,000 to $50,000 for established businesses; the fund is not available to startups.

Borrowers are eligible for up to 75% of designated project and they are required to contribute 25% of the project costs from non-federal sources such as cash, a separate non-federal lender, grants or other approved sources. Interest rates will vary by borrower but will range from 2% to 6% above prime.

Applicants can determine their eligibility and learn more at ruralimpact.org.

HEALTHCARE COHORT FOR STUDENTS

College students in Arkansas can apply now for the 2023 Healthcare Innovation Sprint cohort schedule for May 14-19 at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

The free program guides students through an immersive training project that highlights developing a healthcare service or product that promotes innovation, how to identify potential problems and provides insight on talking to stakeholders and customers to gather information,

The week-long camp will conclude with a Demo Day and winners will receive cash prizes for their venture ideas.

Any junior or senior, graduate or doctoral student enrolled in an Arkansas college or university is eligible for the all-expense-paid training.

The Conductor, Arkansas INBRE and BioVentures are hosting and funding the competition. More information is available at arconductor.org.

THE NEST BRANCHES OUT

The Nest, a membership-based social club for women in business, is beginning a new initiative catering to female founders and entrepreneurs with more than $500,000 in annual revenue at their companies.

The Little Rock organization offers networking and business-support opportunities to women. The club announced Tuesday it is launching The Nest Inner Circle, which will connect women with a support system of business peers and offer tools and strategies to support business growth.

"The challenges facing female business owners are much different than our male counterparts," Nest co-founder Natalie Ghidotti said. "The Inner Circle will address those challenges, providing a confidential and encouraging peer group that gives women new ways to take their business to the next level."

The Nest Inner Circle will meet once a month for a half-day session to explore key areas of growth, including goal setting and vision casting; strategy and planning; leadership and culture; marketing and execution; and leveling up. Guest speakers will also share their insights on topics such as operations, finance, marketing and more.

Inner Circle sessions will begin in May and continue through October 2023. Membership is granted by application and includes a fee upon acceptance. Applications are due by May 15.

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at amoreau@adgnewsroom.com or at (501) 378-3567.

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