By Angira S. Pickens
Philadelphia is known for many things: its foot-long hoagies, delicious cheese steaks, soft baked pretzels, and the comradery that acts as the foundation for its many diverse neighborhoods. Yet, the food and the brotherly love are not the only trademarks that make Philly, Philly. Small businesses that crop up and bloom in the corners of our bustling neighborhoods behold the true essence of Philly.
Our beloved Ma and Pa shops are beacons of entrepreneurial hope, as they provide the community with a sense of economic mobility and vitality. Still, in recent years there has been a decrease in small businesses due to the high cost of living. Without programs such as The Merchants Fund (TMF), our local businesses could slowly vanish.
TMF was founded in 1854 and has supported many local proprietorships. With an annual budget of $500,000, representatives tour the city and grant small business owners the financial assistance they need to maintain and succeed.
“We spend about half a million dollars a year on small businesses. We give money away…and we do things that make a difference and change the way small businesses do business,” noted Patricia Blakely, a ten-year representative for TMF who personally visits proprietors and offers grants. Reflective of the city itself, the fund works across a huge industry mix from manufacturing to day care. “Our goal,” Blakely added, “is to look like the city we’re working in.” TMF acts as a mirror of the rich diversity in the city; thus, the fund strategically works with partners who have primary relationships with business owners from various regions of Philadelphia.
This intricate work that finds a unique balance between economic transactions and the development of sound relationships centered on business, is an exemplar of micro-enterprise work. When the fund meets a business owner at their commercial site, representatives from the fund customizes the grant for that particular business.
“There’s no one-size-fits all grant,” said Blakely. “We are willing to go down really deep on the micro details with a business owner and help them execute their own vision.” This one-on-one, careful involvement is what sets TMF apart from bigger conglomerates that may readily hand out enormous loans to new business owners without checking viability. The fund does not believe in crippling the pockets of those who are transforming our communities for the better. Instead, these grants are little tokens of appreciation for the many Ma’s and Pa’s that have created a legacy or are on their way to building a legacy.
Blakely said small business is the heart and the backbone of the city of Philadelphia. “We are available to everyone,” she remarked before detailing the application process. “We offer online applications for those who are tech savvy, and we also stick to good old-fashioned paper applications.” With this access to monetary assistance, business owners have the ability to watch their investment flourish and most of all “pay it forward,” Blakely continued.
“Do something nice for somebody else, participate, and invest in your success.” Paying it forward is how businesses, communities, and cities grow together. The Merchants Fund grants that perfect gift to Philadelphians. “I love my job,” says Ms. Blakely, “It is a great feeling to give money away and even awesome to know the money is making a difference in small businesses. The next cycle of stabilization grants and matching fund is in January/February 2018. To apply visit www.merchantsfund.org
Angira S. Pickens, M.A. is a part time educator, part time photographer and full-time writer and scholar. Her interests include creative writing and journalism.