Steamboat micro-grant program gives businesses major boosts | SteamboatToday.com

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Steamboat micro-grant program gives businesses major boosts

Mountain Brew employee Rose Bradley works Saturday at the coffee shop on Oak Street. The business is one of three that participated in the city of Steamboat Springs micro-grant program.

— A small grant from the city of Steamboat Springs helped Chocolate Soup Pastry Cafe's wholesale operation get over a hurdle. A separate city grant allowed Sober Guys to begin operating its service and a third grant made Mountain Brew's transition into a new location a bit less costly.

Each of the businesses received a grant of between $2,000 and $3,000 from the city, part of its expanding micro-grant program to help boost economic development locally.

The grant came just in time for Chocolate Soup's Lisa Ciraldo and business partner Mary Ann Gunn, who were out of money and had just received their biggest order to date for macaroons and graham crackers.

In September, Chocolate Soup started selling its milk chocolate almond macaroons, dark chocolate pistachio macaroons and Bella Luna graham crackers at Whole Foods Market locations in the Rocky Mountain region.

"We were at a point where we needed funds to keep going," she said. "We had just gotten the Whole Foods account and we were getting ready to ship to Whole Foods. (The grant) helped us get the equipment to fulfill that order."

The micro-grants are an offshoot of the Steamboat Springs City Council's increased emphasis on economic development this year. The emphasis led to the creation of an economic development policy. The policy, which focuses on preserving and protecting city assets, leveraging those assets, and increasing business diversity and average wages, also outlines the micro-grant program.

Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark, who also serves as the city's finance manager, said the program allows businesses to apply for grants up to $5,000.

According to the policy, the businesses must be located within city limits, must have other seed capital, must be new businesses or an expansion or improvement of an existing business and must present a business plan that demonstrates a return on investment.

Hinsvark added that to be considered, a grant recipient can't compete directly with an existing Steamboat business.

"For instance, if somebody wanted to put a coffee shop next to Winona's, we probably wouldn't be looking at that," she said.

"Really what we're looking for are small incentives to new ventures."

Sober Guys owner Aaron Alpe said the grant helped immensely with his new business, which provides a driver to take home customers — in their own cars — who have been drinking. Alpe said the grant helped pay for start-up costs such as office supplies, attorney's fees and the company's "chase vehicle" — the car that follows its employee driving the customer's car.

Alpe said Sober Guys (970-688-4252) provides rides for $25 within a five-mile radius of downtown Thursday through Saturday, and it's looking to expand.

Mountain Brew's situation is a little different. Al Compos, who owns the coffee shop at 427 Oak St. with his wife, Tasha, got a micro-grant in the form of having some tap fees forgiven. The Composes were in the process of moving their business when the city was increasing tap fees to help fund water and sewer projects.

"Our landlords helped us out to get us open so we passed (the micro-grant) on to them so they didn't have to take a financial hit on the property," Compos said about Dewey and Janet Williams. "They're super-great people. They helped us to do what we needed to do to get open. It was the least we could do."

Hinsvark said the city's administrative team reviews applications and decides whether to award grants.

"We're willing to entertain any and all ideas through the city manager," she said. "He's been doing regular visits with as many businesses that he can meet with to see if there's ways that we can partner with businesses or make them more profitable in the community."

The city budgeted $125,000 for economic development in 2012, which could be used for micro-grants and larger projects such as the city's economic aid to SmartWool and ACZ Laboratories.

City Council member Kenny Reisman said he likes the program and wants to make sure it's accessible to many businesses.

"We're never going to be a city that's going to be able to attract, I think, a huge corporation," he said. "We're not really made for that. What we are made to do is attract people who want to live here, make a lifestyle choice and help them facilitate a successful business, a small business. I think (the program) works toward that."

Chocolate Soup's Ciraldo agrees.

"It's fantastic that the city has programs like that to keep businesses in town," she said. "We take a lot of pride in the fact that we're from Steamboat, and we want to stay in Steamboat."

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com