Twin Cities-based small-business counselors look beyond 2020 challenges

Meda, the oldest and largest of the Twin Cities nonprofit organizations that counsel and assist minority business owners and entrepreneurs, has put its entire portfolio to work to save businesses hurt by the pandemic and recession.

“We are fully deployed at $23 million,” Alfredo Martel, chief executive of Meda, said in an interview last week.

The Minneapolis-based outfit over the last seven years built its capital and loan portfolio from about $5 million to $23 million.

Now, it is looking at requests of up to $20 million that cannot be filled, said Martel, who became the top leader last year, and Patrick Pariseau, Meda’s vice president of lending and consulting.

In 2020, Meda has provided technical assistance to 350-plus minority enterprises, helped more than 200 apply for emergency-lending programs through SBA and state economic development, securing $30 million. Hennepin County used Meda to distribute $14 million in emergency aid to 1,100 small businesses.

Not every business survived. But Martel sees a better future. Meda’s business-oriented board has approved a plan to expand Meda’s capital base to $75 million.

Companies such as Mortenson Construction, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Thrivent Financial and others donated, or loaned at a low rate, capital that helped Meda save dozens of city and suburban businesses. They helped Meda clients hang on to employees or invest in plant and products while awaiting a modest summer-fall rebound. They plan to do more.

Martel is corralling capital and signing up more volunteers from law, business and accounting.

Meda stakeholders also are moving with demographics.

Women and minorities, including immigrants, start businesses at a rate faster than the overall market. The U.S. is moving toward a no-majority population over the next generation.

The banks, which cannot make money on fledgling businesses, back outfits such as Meda and St. Paul Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), a hands-on trainer and incubator for such enterprises, to help them grow to “bankable” size.

The bankers get credit from federal regulators for investing through organizations such as Meda, which also attract corporate, foundation and individual philanthropy.

“We are not talking narrower slices of the economic pie,” Martel said. “We’re talking a bigger pie.”

Meda and NDC are Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs, that are recognized by the U.S. Treasury. They provide counseling, credit, training and support to help tiny businesses get up and through the first few critical years. Their clients often grow big enough to attract a larger lender such as Choice Bank or Wells Fargo.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the damaging riots in May challenged many CDFIs.

“There was carnage everywhere with little businesses,” said Mike Temali, who has led St. Paul NDC for 30 years.

It runs business incubators and the Midtown Global Market in the Midtown Exchange.

“We’re raising money to keep the bills paid at the Global Market, at the same time we’ve cut rent by half to get tenants through the COVID shutdown and the riot disruptions,’’ Temali said. “We’ve lost eight or nine businesses since summer but we’ve signed leases for five or six over the last two or three months, and relocated a couple to larger spaces.”

He said an eye-care clinic that was destroyed in the riots has moved into the Global Market. St. Paul NDC also expanded an Indigenous foods lab.

“Customers have returned slowly,” Temali said. “We had a Black-business expo in October that crushed it. We’re growing again.”

Still, this will not be a year of financial growth for NDC or Meda or many of their clients.

“We’re optimistic about 2021,” said Temali, who is 66 and been through several turns of the economy.

“The news about vaccines is huge,” he said. “Any business that can survive this pandemic will be a lot stronger in 2021. They have learned new ways to cut costs and attract customers. They’re tough.”

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