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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Small-Business Growth Resumes In McLean County

IWU campus building
The McLean County Small Business Development Center is on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

The Small Business Development Center at Illinois Wesleyan University has seen improvement in the last three months after a big drop in activity during the early part of the pandemic.

One of every six small businesses closed temporarily in the spring because of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Other business groups have noted a significant percentage of small businesses in the U.S. are in danger of closing permanently because of the poor economy related to the coronavirus.

That has not deterred entrepreneurs in McLean County from starting groundwork to open their own businesses.

A Bloomington-Normal resource for small businesses, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) said it can help at-risk firms.

Originally located at Illinois State University, the center represents more than 600 clients from 30 different industries; 54% of clients are from Bloomington, 24% are in Normal and the remainder are located in surrounding communities.

Executive Director Karen Bussone said COVID-19 has changed the way small businesses organize themselves to make accommodations, handle space constraints and follow CDC guidelines. Despite the poor economic conditions, Bussone said people are still starting businesses. The stream of requests for assistance from prospective new businesses halted abruptly when the pandemic began, but revved back up in mid-August. Since then, Bussone said the SBDC has received 54 new clients.

“We also hired a second business advisor. Her name is Gabriela Montaigne and she is bilingual and is helping us immensely with our minority businesses—specifically Latino and Hispanic small business, as well as African American small business,” said Bussone.

SBDC offers clients consultation services. Bussone said those interested should prepare a bank-ready business plan before seeking startup capital. 

“There are some banks that do not want to take on that risk, but we've developed relationships with banks here in McLean County that will, if you can demonstrate you can pay your debt,” said Bussone. “We help that entrepreneur—that prospective entrepreneur—determine their target market, and we help them with data to show that there is a need for what they're doing and there is a market available.”

Bussone thinks minority small business owners are impacted more than average. She said minorities may ask for support from lenders and loan opportunities and sometimes not qualify. She said a strong credit score is important. The organization has staff that specialize in helping clients bring up credit scores. Another reason minority clients are impacted, Bussone said, is they tend to have fewer established business relationships. Minorities need to work with someone they can trust, she said.

“Is there a bank that will talk to me—maybe I do have some blemishes, like other people do as well, but is that automatically going to mean that that I am told 'no' because I have color to my skin?” said Bussone. “I'm not implying that happens in the banks around here, but I think across the United States there are pockets, yes, where that does happen.”

Sixty-four startups have come to McLean County in the last three years and remain in business. Bussone said the SBDC has produced a $15 million economic impact in the county.

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Camberyn Kelley is a WGLT intern focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.
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