Noemi Reed has more than a quarter-century of experience in design and construction in her native Mexico, but not nearly the depth of understanding to navigate licensing, planning and permitting in order to apply it in Walla Walla.

With a vision to get a construction company off the ground, Reed is one of 20 people to participate in the area’s first Micro-Business Assistance Program.

On a November Saturday, she and her cohort of classmates trickled into the cafeteria at Sharpstein Elementary for the final business-education class of the program.

The morning started with breakfast from La Ramada Mexican Restaurant. In a coincidental twist, it’s the one space in Walla Walla where Reed’s work is on display.

Fourteen years ago, she helped with the redesign of the building, then owned by a friend. Inspired by the minimalist work of architect Luis Barragan, the stucco-planed walls are adorned in vibrant, rich colors and texture. Inside, the building opens to a half gazebo, as if entering a miniature town built within.

Reed left Walla Walla for a spell. Since returning, she wants to continue building in the community, this time with homes.

The Micro-Business Assistance Program offers business education with the best prize at the end: a $4,000 grant to use with the business for those who complete all of the steps.

The program is a partnership between a slew of local agencies and Mercy Corps Northwest, the Portland nonprofit that created a program known as the Individual Development Account.

Participants in the Micro-Business Assistance Program use the Individual Development Accounts as a savings vehicle. Every $1 saved in an account is matched by $8 in grant money. The end goal is for participants to save $500 that will be matched by $4,000 from the program and used to invest in the business, largely in the form of hard assets.

The program is targeted to entrepreneurs who may be ineligible for traditional lending; this is a specialty of Mercy Corps. Participants must earn less than 80 percent of the area median income ($52,550 for a household of four); have five or fewer employees; and have a maximum net worth of $20,000, in addition to residency and applicable business licensing requirements. There is no credit-history requirement.

The initial program budget is just under $120,000 and provided by a City of Walla Community Development Block Grant ($80,000); Port of Walla Walla ($5,000); city of College Place ($7,200); Banner Bank ($10,000); Baker Boyer Bank ($10,000); Community Bank ($5,000); HAPO Community Credit Union ($2,500); Walla Walla Community College (in-kind); and Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce (in-kind).

Although the final class for the inaugural session was in November, the money won’t be distributed until April. That gives participants time to save while they also create a business plan as a final step in the program.

When she’s finished, Maria Garcia hopes to use her portion to take her salon, 7IMPACT, from a home-based business into a more visible space.

“My dream is to have a commercial area,” Garcia said.

“My passion is doing hair. I think this is a great opportunity to learn more about business.”

Some of the information is hardly new to Garcia, who has worked as a stylist more than 25 years. It is, however, affirming. Formalities with bookkeeping, in particular, have helped validate that she’s doing things correctly, she said.

Tips on marketing have been among the most valuable pieces for Alma Miranda, who hopes to take her Mary Kay business to the next level.

Miranda wants to become an area director for the cosmetics company. She sees an untapped market in the Latino community for products that help protect skin from exposure in the fields. Many customers may not have the time or inclination to go to the store and figure out a skin-care regimen. With expansion in the marketplace, she can also reach out to others interested in making an income from direct sales. Particularly, she said, the business may be able to attract stay-at-home moms who want to generate income.

For Max Reinland, one of four participants on the English-language side of the program, one of the highlights has been interacting with other entrepreneurs and sharing experiences.

Reinland had a successful golf clothing line called Muni Kids when he started a spinoff business making golf club head covers under the name Reinland Golf Co.

The business is a family affair, with his mom, Marti, behind the stitching from the online orders, including custom covers.

Reinland had long had a business plan for his clothing store. The program has led him to creating one specifically for Reinland Golf Co. With the funds at the end he hopes to invest in an industrial embroidery machine.

The idea behind a program like this is to help fortify entrepreneurship by helping small-business operators without a path to other lending flourish.

Jennifer Beckmeyer, the city’s Community Development Block Grant coordinator, said a waitlist for the program’s next round of training is being compiled. Twenty people participated the first time. Sixteen of those qualify for the grant funds.

The needs of participants varies greatly.

In the program, “We’ve got people with master’s degrees,” she said.

Mercy Corps specializes in working with a high-risk pool, but its default rate is zero percent, she said.

“For a lot of these folks already in business, they will be able to grow and scale,” she said.

“If the goal is to move out of a home-based business, for instance, this will help make that next step into reality.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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