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Business Owners In Naugatuck Valley Consider Loan Program As Customers Stay Home

Gov. Ned Lamont recently announced $1.5 million in loans available to women- and minority-owned small businesses in the Lower Naugatuck River Valley. The money comes from a public-private partnership created to address the needs of those more vulnerable businesses as they try to stay afloat in the COVID economy.

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Renee McFarlin, who owns a hair salon in Ansonia, says she wants her customers to know how clean her shop is. 

“People tell me I’m going overboard,” she said during a recent tour of her salon. She sprays the chair after each customer, cleans the bathroom after each use, and refuses to do the hair of anyone who’s not wearing a mask.

McFarlin pointed out all the areas she sprays after each customer and her supply of bleach donated by clients and members of her church. 

Despite all that, customers have canceled. McFarlin thinks it’s because the pandemic is getting worse nationally. That’s bad news because right now, McFarlin could use “an influx of customers, of course."

Her business might be eligible for a loan from the new public-private partnership, but she’s wary of taking on debt.

“If I could get a grant versus a loan,” McFarlin said.

Lisa's Beauty & Barber on Main Street in Ansonia has seen a number of clients cancel appointments and a small number of walk-ins. McFarlin says what she needs most is customers, but on days without appointments booked, she says, "I come in by faith."

The new Partnership Loan Program is a collaboration of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the city of New Haven, the Amour Propre Fund and HEDCO, or the Hartford Economic Development Corporation. The pool of $1.5 million can go to businesses in New Haven or the Lower Naugatuck River Valley with a priority on Derby and Ansonia.

Qualifying businesses with no more than 20 employees can complete a one-page application and receive up to $25,000. The loans will be interest-free for the first 12 months.

Lindy Lee Gold is president of the Amour Propre Fund. At a news conference, she shared data that predicts up to 40% of minority- and women-owned businesses will not survive the COVID-related recession. 

“Many lack access to credit, making it harder to survive these financial emergencies,” Gold said. “Profit margins are thin, while other financial savings are often meager, making them vulnerable to sudden downturns.”

Fernando Rosa, CEO of HEDCO, said this program has been in the works for a while. “As women continue to develop their businesses and taking care of their households, the need exists,” he said. “And they are not all in the position where they could qualify for banking loans.”

Qualification is one issue, but interest is another. McFarlin said the concept doesn’t make sense to her.

“You want us to take out a loan, but the way that things are going with the COVID going up, then you have to sit back and say ‘how do I pay this back afterwards?’ So personally, I wouldn’t take it,” she said.

Amy Demore sells jams, jellies and pie fillings at the Ansonia Farmers Market. Her business is less than a year old and she sees a loan as an opportunity to grow her business into a bigger one, potentially moving into a storefront in the coming years.

Amy Demore sells jams and jellies in her year-old business, Amski’s Delights, at a farmers market in Ansonia.

She has already taken out a loan to pay for supplies that would normally come out of her paycheck. Demore lost her day job working in a chiropractor’s office due to shutdowns, so another loan could get Amski’s Delights out to more farmers markets “to help pay for all my sites and help pay the credit cards that I use to build up my business to a bigger one,” she explained.

Prassede Altimari was making a cappuccino for one of a handful of customers at her bakery and deli, Altimari’s Little Italy, on a recent weekday.

She and her husband have sold cannolis and subs in Derby for 32 years. They installed new glass paneling above the countertops in order to reopen safely. Now they’re making monthly payments on that work. 

Prassede Altimari reopened her store in downtown Derby with new safety measures in June. A small crowd of customers stand outside after a coffee but much of her business comes from the Derby Town Courts down the street which have been closed since March.
Credit Ali Oshinskie / Connecticut Public Radio
Prassede Altimari reopened her store in downtown Derby with new safety measures in June. A small crowd of customers stand outside after a coffee, but much of her business comes from the nearby Derby Town Courts, which have been closed since March.

Their daughter, Amy Altimari, said they could use a loan to help cover those payments, but with business as slow as it is, she’s not optimistic for the long term.

“With their age and stuff, it probably won’t last like this,” Altimari said. “I don’t see how it could, it’s pretty sad but that’s what’s gonna end up happening.” 

Altimari's Little Italy has sold cannolis and subs in downtown Derby for over 32 years. But decreased traffic to the store brings new challenges.
Credit Ali Oshinskie / Connecticut Public Radio
Altimari's Little Italy has sold cannolis and subs in downtown Derby for over 32 years. But decreased traffic to the store brings new challenges.

The Women’s Business Development Council, which has branches in Stamford, New London and Derby, says it has seen requests for assistance triple since the pandemic started.

Fran Pastore, founder and CEO of the organization, agrees that the state did well with bringing in money for some. But there are also those who didn’t have existing relationships with banks or the support they needed to take advantage of loan programs.

“They need grant funds, they cannot take on any more debt,” Pastore said. “There are people who can take on more debt, because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but with all of this uncertainty my biggest concern is the disappearance of Connecticut’s Main Streets.” 

Pastore recognized that the recent past in the Lower Naugatuck Valley wasn’t so fruitful either.

“Let us not forget that a lot of these towns that we’re talking about along the Route 8 corridor have been struggling for a very, very long time,” she noted. 

For them, she says, the pandemic is just the latest economic challenge businesses in these towns have endured.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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