Mayor comes to Hampden to promote micro-loan program

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came to The Charmery on Wednesday to promote Hampden's new ice cream parlor as a success story of the city's fledgling micro-loan program for small businesses — and to try the new "S.R.B." flavor , a swirl of strawberry, rhubarb and blueberry that also stands for her initials.

"It's good," she decreed, after sampling the confection on a small plastic spoon.

At a press conference outside The Charmery, at the corner of Chestnut Avenue and West 36th Street, Rawlings-Blake praised the two-month-old ice cream parlor as an example of the city's commitment to small business.

The Charmery received a $20,000 loan, one of the first three awarded by the city since the micro-loan program launched late last year.

"When you think of the quirky nature of Hampden, you can see it in every shop," said the mayor, who earlier in the day walked West 36th Street, a commercial corridor known as The Avenue, with an entourage of merchants, City Council members and Baltimore Development Corp. officials.

She called The Charmery "the perfect backdrop to talk about our micro loan program," and added, "We want to help our small businesses thrive and prosper."

"What's going to be the job creators of the future?" asked Brenda McKenzie, the BDC's president, who appeared with the mayor. "It's going to be you, the small businesses."

Opening the ice cream parlor is "a dream come true," said Laura Alima, who runs it with her husband, David.

Rawlings-Blake also held a business roundtable in the parlor with selected merchants, many of whom said their biggest concerns are about rising crime and infrastructure problems, including an emergency water main repair project in the area that has been going on for about a month.

Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe and its new upstairs cafe, Choux, said the cafe on The Avenue needs a metal fire escape to comply with the city fire code, which means, "I would be a candidate for a micro loan."

Siger said she said she hopes to apply for one this week.

Also attending the mayoral visit were business and domestic partners Heather Drinkwater and Kelly Gilmartin, of the Lake Walker area, who received a $25,000 loan to turn an old mail truck into a mobile coffee service that will specialize in baked goods and gourmet coffees.

They hope to launch the business in mid-November and travel around the city to institutions like Johns Hopkins University, area hospitals, Penn Station and various businesses, as well as to neighborhoods like Hampden.

"I want to reach as many people as possible," said Drinkwater, who is currently a barista at Atwater's in Belvedere Square, where Gilmartin also works.

The Baltimore Micro-Loan Program is designed to help start-up businesses that have limited financial resources. It was launched in November 2012 with $250,000 in state funding and $125,000 from the city.

The maximum loan is $30,000 and applicants are first vetted through the city's Small Business Resource Center.

"Typically, they're like mom-and-pops," said Jeffrey Pillas, chief financial officer of the BDC. He said the city program has received about 15 applications and made three loans so far, totaling about $75,000.

When asked why the city was re-introducing a program it first announced last year, Pillas said that the city wants to publicize the program again in time for the fall, when many new businesses open. And he said an extra nudge may be needed because initial buzz about the micro-loan program has died down.

"This is like the perfect kind of neighborhood for that kind of thing," he said.

McKenzie said the city and the BDC, its quasi-public economic development agency, may "tweak" the program as it goes along.

"I think we're off to a good start, but we're learning," she said.

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