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Baltimore County's small businesses are getting increased financial support thanks to a recently established county-wide flexible loan program, the first recipients of which were announced by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz Oct. 16. The $1.5 million Boost Fund, which is managed by the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development, offers loans to small, minority and women-owned businesses in the county.

The program's funding comes from the Maryland Small, Minority and Women-Owned Business Loan Fund, which was started using revenue from state casinos. The Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development had to submit an application in the spring in order to be granted funding to give out loans.

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"This is the second year the State of Maryland has run this program," Will Anderson, director of the Department of Economic and Workforce Development, wrote in an email. "It's the first year Baltimore County has participated, and we plan on applying again next year if the program continues as expected. Based on the interest from Baltimore County based companies, we have quite a lot of small businesses that really could use the boost loans to take their business to the next level."

According to a press release, the Boost Fund "can lend qualified small businesses between $50,000 and $250,000 for start-up and gap funding, building and leasehold improvements, business and equipment acquisition, commercial real estate acquisition, and working capital."

The flexible terms of the Boost Fund program and the ability for business owners to help create terms of payment that work best for them makes it an attractive option for struggling companies.

"Boost Fund loans are flexible, with a reduced down payment and interest rates set at or below market rates," Anderson wrote. "Payment plans are customized to meet the cash flow needs of each business. We often talk with companies who need this kind of flexibility, as a piece of the puzzle to make it work."

To receive a loan as part of the program, businesses must apply and be accepted based upon their applications and whether they meet the criteria outlined on bcboostfund.org. Three businesses have already been named recipients of the loan fund: Michele's Granola, Oak Creek Cafe, and Aegis Mechanical Contracting.

"The first three loans echo the diversity of Baltimore County's small business community," Anderson wrote. "They each met the specific loan criteria and presented strong applications to reflect how the financing would help their businesses. These first three will help an entrepreneurial women-owned manufacturer, a contracting firm owned by an African American veteran, and a new restaurant in a Commercial Revitalization District."

Michele Tsucalas' small business, Michele's Granola, currently based in Timonium, started when Tsucalas tried to create her own batch of fresh , homemade granola. Her friends and family were so impressed with her product that they encouraged her to start her own business, which she did in 2006. The company has been growing ever since.

"I started my business at a Maryland farmers' market in 2006," Tsucalas wrote in an email. "From there, we were growing exponentially so we initially took commercial space in South Baltimore and when we outgrew that kitchen, we moved up to Timonium to accommodate our growing e-commerce business and wholesale orders."

The money she receives from the Boost Fund will help her expand her location to accommodate the ever-growing needs of her business, employees and customers.

"The money from the loan will be used to relocate our production, distribution and office facilities to a larger space in Timonium," Tsucalas wrote. "In addition, it will also give us the flexibility to convert some current part-time positions to full-time, and hire up to 24 new full-time positions over the next three years."

Though Tsucalas said she was excited by the flexible options provided by the loan, she said she was more interested in the chance to work with the county.

"This loan offered a slightly better APR, but the opportunity to partner with Baltimore County was what made this loan most appealing," she wrote. "The support of the county is important to any small business as they can provide not only financial, but also educational and small business resources of which the owner may or may not have been otherwise aware. The lower rate and flexibility of the loan was a very appealing aspect of the Boost Fund, and the partnership with the county was an added benefit that made this opportunity the best fit for us."

Barnett Carroll incorporated Aegis Mechanical Contracting, a company that designs and installs HVAC systems and plumbing systems for commercial applications, in 2007. When he found out his company had been accepted for the loan in late September, he was "absolutely stoked."

"It's another really cool and improbable twist in the journey that this company has been for so many of us here," Carroll wrote in an email. "Not too long ago Aegis was just a neat idea that I thought I could pull off. Almost seven years later, nobody of our size is looking past us."

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Carroll said he plans to use the money from the loan for "staffing, training, tools and equipment." For him, the money will enable him to fill needs within his Woodlawn-based business that he would have been unable to otherwise.

"The adage that it takes money to make money has lasted for as long as it has because it is true," he wrote. "At all times your ability to grow is constrained by the limits of your cash flow. In our particular case, all of our folks are about as busy as anyone ought to be. While theoretically there are always opportunities to increase productivity and efficiency; at some point you just need more human resources if more work is to be done. But the people cost immediately and don't always positively impact the bottom line immediately. A loan like this can help one span that period of time until the new resources are producing at a greater than self-sustaining rate."

Anderson said his department plans to award more loans soon.

"We are receiving some really interesting applications," he wrote. "And we are confident several will be successful, allowing us to make a second round of Boost loans. It's a terrific program for Baltimore County's small business community. We're excited to manage the fund and put the loans to work supporting our entrepreneurs."

For small businesses like Michele's Granola, Tsucalas said, the support of the county government can make a world of difference.

"There are a number of wonderful small business ideas out there that just need financing to take off, and this program provides a chance for the best and most viable of those businesses to positively impact our local and state economy," she wrote.

Reach Times Staff Reporter Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or via email at elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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