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County micro-loan program hopes small investments lead to big results

by: Stover E. Harger III A business can use the program twice, said David Stocker, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development. “The main goal is to help business owners pay for business expenses,” said Stocker, who worked to bring the program to the county.

The Columbia County Economic Team has partnered with Micro Enterprises Services of Oregon (MESO) to provide what are known as individual savings accounts to qualifying small businesses.

The program will use grant money from the United States Department of Agriculture to provide start-up revenue for small businesses countywide. MESO, a Portland-based micro-loan provider, will supply a 3-to-1 revenue match for small businesses totaling as much as $6,000 for an initial $2,000 investment made by a business.

A business can use the program twice, said David Stocker, director of the county's Office of Economic Development

'The main goal is to help business owners pay for business expenses,' said Stocker, who worked to bring the program to the county.

The program is the first of its kind in a rural county. MESO currently serves Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

Sanford Maddox, the executive director of MESO, said he hopes to supply four to eight local businesses with between $24,000 and $48,000 revenue matches. It's not much money, he said, but it may be enough to help developing businesses buy supplies and provide marketing.

'When you are in a small community, you don't have access to marketing or even traffic flow,' Maddox said. 'A lot of those businesses [in St. Helens] are off the main drag [of Highway 30].'

The program comes with a number of stipulations, however.

A business owner's net assets cannot exceed $20,000, excluding the owner's home and vehicle. The program also caps the business owner's household revenue at 80 percent of median family income, adjusted for the size of the family.

In addition to the matching funds, MESO will also start providing micro-loans to small businesses. Micro-loans are typically below $5,000, an amount most banks don't provide because they're considered too low to be profitable. Loans come with small-business assistance from MESO, in the form of tax, accounting and legal help.

Wauna Federal Credit Union has agreed to provide meeting space for MESO employees when they're in town meeting with business owners.

A number of small businesses have applied for the program, though none of the applications have been finalized yet, Maddox said.

Though the program currently has limited resources, Maddox expects those to grow in the future. But that will only happen if businesses express interest in the program.

'If the demand is strong,' Maddox said, 'then we will go back to the federal government and say the demand is strong.'