Juneau Nonprofit Aims to Help Sitka Startups

The Juneau Economic Development Council has taken its show on the road. Its operations director, Margaret O’Neal, was in Sitka this week to promote what the council calls “gap financing” – putting up the money to help people get their business going. People like Tony Field.

“I’m considering and hoping to start up a bowling center here in Sitka,” Field said.

Bowling. Sitka used to have a bowling alley, doesn’t anymore, and Field believes the city could use one. But there are obstacles.

“It’s going to take a lot of money,” he said. “Money is obviously the driving force. There are several different options with that, and hopefully in the near future I’ll be starting to pursue those avenues.”

Field was in the audience at the Greater Sitka Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon on Wednesday, where he and others heard a presentation from the Juneau Economic Development Council.

It included a long list of resources – banks, state loan programs, and more – but also details about what the nonprofit calls “gap funding” – loans to help first-time businesspeople get started and make a good impression on private lenders.

The money comes from funds set up by economic disaster relief money set aside to help Southeast deal with the decline of the timber industry in the late 1990s.

“Quite a lot of it went into different communities and we got a grant from the City and Borough of Juneau to set up revolving loan funds,” said Margaret O’Neal, director of the revolving loan fund for the Juneau Economic Development Council. “We had initially one for Juneau, two for Sitka, one for Wrangell, one for Haines, one for Thorne Bay, and then JEDC borrowed $1 million from the USDA to do a regionwide loan program.”

O’Neal says that regionwide loan program can make loans anywhere in Southeast except Juneau. After her Chamber presentation, O’Neal said helping startups, well, start up is one of the best parts of her job.

“People are pursuing their passions or maybe have inherited some money and now they want to figure out if they can do what they’ve always wanted to do,” O’Neal said. “The people I’ve spoken to so far haven’t always been in business for themselves. They’ve had day jobs and careers. Starting a business and being responsible for all the financial aspects of it are daunting sometimes.”

She says people shouldn’t confuse the economy with the stock market. And so, while the numbers on Wall Street rise and fall with investor confidence, it’s important to also look at local optimism and local confidence – will people spend money on what individual businesses are selling?

“I’m hoping the economy is turning around,” she said. “Seems like it might be.”  Whether it’s a good time to start a business depends on the business, she says.

O’Neal’s visit was sponsored by the Chamber and the Sitka Economic Development Association. Chamber executive director Jennifer Robinson says that optimism walks into her office a lot.

“I do get a fair amount of people coming into my office with questions about starting businesses in Sitka,” Robinson said. “More than I would expect. There are quite a few people looking into doing that. How many of them go somewhere, we’ll see, but there’s definitely an interest in that still, so people must feel optimistic that this is still a good place to be starting a business.”

Tony Field, the potential bowling center owner, says he’s one of those optimists, hoping that economic recovery will happen sooner rather than later, and believing that regardless, Sitka is ready and willing to spend money on strikes and spares.

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