Fort Smith Center for Economic Development and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Foundation announced July 12 an investment of nearly $200,000 for use as seed funds to help locally-owned startups in the Fort Smith region.
The Center for Economic Development (CED) expects to launch the Community Investment Fund (CIF) in early 2024 and will award funds to small business owners “who have faced barriers to accessing capital, markets, and essential networks for growth,” a news release said.
“The CED plays a crucial role in fostering economic growth by empowering businesses, aiding entrepreneurs, offering workforce training, and promoting innovation, and launching the CIF will enable us to amplify our impact,” said Kendall Ross, executive director of the CED.
The CIF will prioritize investment in ventures based in the Fort Smith metro that serve the unique needs of the region, the press release said. With 99.9% of businesses across the country being small businesses, Bill Sabo, director of the UAFS Arkansas Small Business and Development Center, said the goal of the center is to ensure that local entrepreneurs have access to the resources and support needed to launch their ideas, build their businesses, and amplify their impact across the region.
The next step in the process is to establish an advisory board for the CIF composed of local business leaders and community organizers, the news release said. The board will help set application standards, review requests, assess feasibility and award funds to small businesses with the greatest potential to improve the region.
Blake Rickman, executive director of the UAFS Foundation, said they will utilize the vast network of the Center for Economic Development in order to have a diverse group of business leaders and community organizers serve on the advisory committee.
“There are hundreds of influential and inspiring professionals who are already engaged in the work we do at the CED who can assist the recipients of the grants in not only managing their funds, but plugging in to the dedicated support network of experts who serve in the Center for Business and Professional Development, Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, and Family Enterprise Center,” Rickman said.
He said many of the details about how the grants and seed funds will work are still in the process of being developed.
“We hope to build them in tandem with the advisory council who will ultimately be responsible for assessing applications and selecting awardees,” Rickman said.
The UAFS Foundation Board of Directors committed $130,272 to an endowment that will generate perpetual funding for the CIF and $64,011 to be used as seed funding for the first implementation phase, the release said. While the Fort Smith area may seem at a disadvantage because of a lack of investors ready to help those wanting to start a small business, Rickman said the ideas coming out of the area need support.
“We know this isn’t Silicon Valley – the River Valley isn’t rife with angel investors and venture capitalists ready to fund every good idea they hear. But our people have ideas that are just as good. This fund enables us to get the small business owners who drive the region forward the funding they need to get started,” he said.
The CIF five-year-plan includes utilizing equity and equity-like financial instruments to invest in these companies. The university hopes to grow the program into a sustainable revolving loan fund, a move that will sophisticate the process and create perpetual funding for regional entrepreneurs, the news release said.