South St. Pete businesses, startups have new resources
Entrepreneurs in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) can soon apply for city funding to bolster their small business, startup or “side hustle.”
The Microfund Program begins in April after over six months of development and will also provide licensing information, mentorships and educational services to increase business acumen. The ultimate goal is to ensure all businesses within the CRA can utilize the current capital access initiative, a hallmark of the city’s redevelopment plan.
Rick Smith, economic development manager, and Tracey Smith, St. Pete Greenhouse manager and small business liaison, led a presentation on the long-awaited program to city council members during Thursday’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee meeting. The Greenhouse and the Saturday Morning Shoppe’s Entrepreneurial Academy are essential community partners.
“I’m literally – in my heart and my head – doing cartwheels right now,” said Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders. “I’m excited for this program because we have been speaking about this for how many years, and now it is really coming to fruition.”
City officials instituted the South St. Pete CRA in 2015 to promote reinvestment in housing, neighborhoods, commercial corridors, education, workforce and business development and nonprofits. Encompassing 4,777 acres, the CRA is the city’s largest and one of the most expansive in the state.
It includes over 20 neighborhood and business associations and two Florida Main Street Districts. The Smiths (no relation) explained how the Microfund Program embraces traditional place-based economic development strategies and newer people-based initiatives.
City officials launched a commercial matching grant program for existing businesses in 2016. However, Rick Smith relayed its shortcomings.
“We believe it had a good impact on improving the visuals and aesthetics along the corridors,” Smith said. “It was also excluding a lot of other businesses vital to the CRA that are not able to take advantage of it because of a lack of capital access.”
So, city officials sought to create and fund a separate program for smaller and early-stage businesses that provides resources for entrepreneurs still finding their footing. Smith said program officials designed it to bridge that gap and support people who do not meet other CRA initiative requirements.
Existing commercial brick-and-mortar businesses and home childcare services are eligible for $10,000. Other home-based businesses and those sharing commercial spaces can receive $5,000.
Tracey Smith noted previous efforts to support home childcare services in the CRA were successful, and that industry has also long been a focus for Figgs-Sanders. Smith explained that accountants and artists would also fall under the home-based business category, while shared spaces would include stylists.
“This program is unique in that it’s not one-size-fits-all,” Smith said. “It is going to be tailor-made for each business.”
Early-stage startups are eligible for $2,500 grants as part of a pilot program that will test the viability and sustainability of “micro businesses” becoming an economic driver in South St. Pete. Smith said those are people “out there doing, as we say, their hustle.”
She said those entrepreneurs often lack necessary licensing and helping them attain that accreditation is another critical programming aspect. Once their endeavors are legally recognized, she said they could receive future grants and loans.
Participants must complete a two-phase application process. The first includes a staff review, and the second involves creating a business capacity development plan. Smith explained that business navigators and Greenhouse mentors would assist with that process, which will identify specific projects or goals.
“Always keeping in mind growth that is needed to position themselves for success,” she added.
Smith said each cohort would feature 35 to 45 businesses, and participants have 45 days to complete their development plans. Program officials with then disburse funding.
While the program will refresh quarterly, Smith said its leadership would pause after the inaugural cohort to ascertain feedback from participants, staff and mentors. City administrators allocated $1.35 million for the Microfund initiative.
Councilmember Ed Montanari said that as “the keepers of the city’s checkbook,” he would like to see the council’s involvement in the process. “So that we, at a minimum, get a report on who is getting the funding,” he said.
Those found ineligible will receive detailed information about why they were not approved, along with a list of steps to prepare for reapplication. Smith said that could include working with partners from the Greenhouse or an entrepreneurial academy to increase business readiness.
Once the program reaches capacity, applicants will receive guidance on proceeding with a waitlisted application and dates for the next cohort. “We want to make sure that everyone has been served in some capacity,” said Rick Smith.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes said he “would love to see” something directed towards healthy grocers, as that is a specific need in South St. Pete. He also expressed the benefit of providing mentors that successfully started small businesses in industries that correspond with the participant.
“I always get pumped up at this kind of stuff,” Gerdes said. “This is awesome. I’m excited about this.”
Program officials will open applications for the Microfund Program in April. For more information and to receive notifications, visit the website here.
February 27, 2023at3:27 pm
This sounds amazing! Looking forward to seeing the results!