May 24, 2012

Do you like this?

“The fact that we had to go to Durham to find a lender is disappointing. We were not getting any traction with local banks which was really disappointing for us. It’s a deal that was both good on paper and good for the community.” That was a quote in the Friday, May 18, edition of the Times Free Press from developer Eric Cummings, speaking about his efforts to get Enzo’s Market off the drawing board.

Enzo’s Market is envisioned as a grocery store located in the former Hills Florist warehouse, adjacent to Battle Academy on Main Street. Cummings and his partners have been looking for a bank lender for the project for more than four years. Now that a lender has stepped in, construction is expected to begin on June 1, with the new market open by 2013.  A wide range of grocery items will be offered, with traditional and national brands mixed with local and regional offerings. Think of a Greenlife mixed with a Bi-Lo, on a smaller scale. The store will also feature a café and a wine store that will be attached.

So there is the pitch. You have a vibrant, growing set of neighborhoods on the Southside of downtown, not to mention those living in the central and north sectors of downtown. The 23rd Street and St. Elmo Bi-Lo locations are the nearest full-service grocers in the area to those in the Southside. So enterprising developers envisioned converting an existing warehouse structure into a grocery.

Response from the community, community leaders, city leaders and fellow business owners has been overwhelmingly positive—almost to the point of fanatically positive. So, how is it that not one local bank sees the opportunity here? If planned well and operated by experienced grocers, it seems unlikely that this business plan would be the highest risk a local bank has on its prospective loan list.

Full disclosure: I am speaking from a very selfish perspective here. I live very close to the proposed Enzo’s site. That’s good news for me and all of my neighbors, both next door and those a bit further away. I wanted this to happen. Four years ago.

I also realize banks and lenders have a myriad of criteria, requirements, thresholds and stress tests when lending money to potential businesses and developers. I’ve been in the market for business loans more than a few times and understand the process. My point here is that, again, this business idea took four years and a bank from Durham, N.C., to get the ball rolling. Seriously?

The business-loan sector is still suffering from the Great Recession and the fallout of banks tightening their lending streams. With that in mind, I think we need to hear more from those leaders about the local business-lending landscape and where they are positioned in the current market climate. Instead of another roundtable of entrepreneurs, business start-up foundations and venture capitalists being formed to spur growth in the small-business community, I would like to see a table full of our local bank-lending leadership in our city. At the end of the day, they still hold the purse strings and they should be able to speak about their supply of business-loan money in relation to the local demand for it.


May 24, 2012

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