Hartford has its challenges, as is obvious, but also its strengths. One of those is the good number of small businesses along the city's major avenues. An agency that has played a key role in this positive development is quietly celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
The Hartford Economic Development Corporation, known as HEDCo, was started by the Hartford Chamber of Commerce in 1975 to retain and develop small business and other economic activity in the city. HEDCo and a companion agency, the Greater Hartford Business Development Center, lend money to help small businesses start and grow. They often are the secondary lender, providing the last influx of money needed to make a deal happen.
And many have. From Scott's Jamaican Bakery on Albany Avenue to El Mercado on Park Street to the Colonial Theater development on Farmington Avenue (among many others), HEDCo has helped stabilize and enhance the city's arterial corridors and neighborhoods.
In their early years, the nonprofit agencies mainly provided technical assistance to small businesses and would-be entrepreneurs. The first loans came from a mere $7,500 grant from the city in 1981. Today there are more than 300 loans worth more than $25 million in play from revolving loan programs. Those loans, once limited only to Hartford, are now extended to 107 towns and soon will be open to anyone in the state.
In 2004, the agencies opened a business resource center to provide training and consultation to small business owners. HEDCo now provides incubator space for start-up businesses at its Lewis Street headquarters and recently spun off an environmental inspection business that has 15 employees.
One of its great successes is Severance Foods, founded in the 1980s by three former Heublein employees with their severance checks after Heublein was bought out and moved elsewhere. Severance, on North Main Street, now has about 60 employees, many of them city residents, and is one of the Northeast's premier makers of tortilla chips.
Being the secondary lender inevitably involves risk, usually in the form of light collateral, but executive director Sam Hamilton said the agencies get nearly 90 cents on the dollar paid back. The Hartford Business Journal named them one of the area's top 10 lenders last year.
Though the organization is going statewide, it will rightly keep a focus on Hartford, where it has been vital to the city's economy and a great help to businesses owned by minorities and women. As this page has emphasized over the years, the rebirth of major avenues can lead the revitalization of the city. HEDCo has been making this happen. Let's wish the agency another 35 years.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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