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Main Spotlight: People-Centered Funding for Main Streets in the New Economy

April 19, 2022 | Main Spotlight: People-Centered Funding for Main Streets in the New Economy | By: Chris Cain, Microfinance Program Manager at Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development |

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Virginia Main Street (VMS) program is incredibly excited to co-host the 2022 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Richmond, Virginia, May 16-18. Get to know our state, host city, and Main Street communities through this special blog series! Conference registration is open here. Check out the conference website and follow conference's Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest updates.

In order to help small Main Street businesses thrive, we have to be creative about getting them access to capital. The prevailing mythology is that entrepreneurs can simply go to a bank and get a loan or raise money from their friends and neighbors, and that will be enough to help them get started. That's just simply not the case. Localized economies don't traditionally have the infrastructure to help small businesses that are less than two years old, and, as we know, many of them don't survive that long because of the lack of access to capital. Fortunately, microfinance is a vehicle to provide small-scale, accessible capital to businesses and people while removing traditional barriers. Our local businesses need microfinancing, especially those that cannot otherwise get traditional forms of credit. It is a tool that helps communities and small businesses thrive, while allowing money to be reinvested in local businesses and neighborhoods where it is needed most.
Today, a sense of connectivity is more important than ever, especially after experiencing an unprecedented pandemic where we had to physically isolate ourselves from our community and peers. Many of us are still struggling to find that sense of space, safety, relationships, and community that we once knew. One of the things that I love about being an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder is putting people and our relationships front and center of everything we do! And, what better way to highlight the importance of community than by spotlighting a highly impactful microfinance program in Virginia, the Community Business Launch (CBL).

Collaboration is Key

Since 2015, 33 communities have participated in the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Community Business Launch (CBL) program and launched new or expanded businesses in walkable downtowns and neighborhoods throughout the state. As a systems approach to asset-based, small-business economic development, the CBL program helps communities identify their unique assets and fill vacant storefronts with businesses that best attract and serve its residents. CBL is a perfect example of how commitment to place and building stronger communities through a people-centered approach can beautifully come together.

How does it work? CBL partners with localities and Main Street organizations, providing them with the capital to create and run a small business incubation training program, and fund the awards for a pitch competition. These groups typically facilitate a bootcamp for aspiring entrepreneurs or existing businesses poised to grow. These folks go through the bootcamp to learn the basics of running a business, such as the marketing, financial, and legal structure. Once finished, there is a pitch competition and at least three businesses are awarded funding. With this small grant and additional technical assistance and mentor services, winning entrepreneurs are able to move their business into available space!

Magical Math
Capital + Support + Education = Vibrant Neighborhoods

Having three businesses open in a very short period of time is not only catalytic for those businesses, but also for the people around them. Pretty easy and straightforward, right? Not so fast.

This is a blog post about community and relationships, not economic development. That’s why it’s important to note that something amazing happened between many of the CBL cohorts, and that was increased collaboration.

We have all seen Shark Tank, and when CBL first launched in 2015, that is how DHCD thought the program was going to unfold. It was assumed that if you put a bunch of entrepreneurs together and have them go after a finite amount of money, there would be fierce, dog-eat-dog competition. Surprisingly, the opposite happened: they collaborated with each other, supported one another, and built meaningful relationships. When one of them was struggling, others took notice and helped. The sense of belonging, community connection, and access to a network of colleagues has offered rewards greater than the sum of the cash award, and it’s a great reminder that people are our biggest asset. The program is a fantastic exemplification of how one well-positioned and people-centered initiative can impact an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a very short period of time.
Speaking of dogs, in 2018, Downtown Wytheville, Inc. (DWI) was granted $60,000 to complete a CBL in the Town of Wytheville’s main street corridor, with the hopes of recruiting a brewery and some new restaurants to accommodate both tourists staying at the Bolling-Wilson Hotel and those who worked downtown. Ultimately, they were able to fund three new businesses, including Chau's Corner Bakery, Seven Sisters Brewery, and 7 Dogs Brew Pub, and one expansion, Rose Cottage School of Art. All of these businesses are still open today!

If you are planning to attend the 2022 Main Street Now Conference next month in Richmond, VA, join us on May 15th at 6:30 p.m. at Wong Gonzalez to learn more about Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building. Stay tuned for more information!

Community Capital

Even though the CBL program is pretty amazing, the funding needs of the businesses that won awards do not end there. For most of them, it’s only the beginning.

Referring back to the mythology mentioned earlier, aren’t people supposed to just go to a bank and get a small loan to meet all of their financial needs to get their business started? No, they can’t. It’s extremely difficult for an entrepreneur to access reliable, non-predatory capital if their business is less than two years old and needs less than $50,000. Some businesses are able to access capital, specifically through payday and predatory lenders, but it is certainly not ideal. Here’s where Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) demonstrate their value!

CDFIs use traditional financial tools, like micro-loans, in innovative ways. CDFIs can be credit unions, banks, loan funds, and even venture capital firms. They ensure that integrity and respect are woven into every policy, procedure, product, and service they offer. Essentially, it’s people-centric banking. Check out this helpful infographic to learn more!

Join us on May 3rd for the Microfinance: What is a CDFI? Webinar, hosted by the VA CDFI Coalition and DHCD’s Virginia Small Business Resiliency Fund. You can also find a CDFI in your area by checking out the Opportunity Finance Network’s website!


Hope can be found in this new economy as long as people are prioritized. It's the people that are running our local businesses. It’s the people that hire, create good jobs for your neighbors, and donate to local charitable causes in one’s community. It's not a mistake that it's called Community Business Launch. It's not a mistake that it's a Community Development Financial Institution. Community is first. Our small businesses are the souls of our communities, and if you use magical math in a people-centered approach, amazing things can happen!

Author Bio

Chris Cain is the Microfinance Program Manager at the Virginia DHCD. For more than 15 years, Chris has been on the front lines of the community-based economic development sector, empowering people to open businesses by educating them on business planning, navigating the process of getting them funded and lending an ear of support and empathy. Chris' goal is to democratize the way that money flows into and around our communities and create entrepreneur ecosystems. She believes that equalizing the playing field for the small but mighty businesses makes our neighborhoods amazing places to live.

Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development
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