The Loan Arrangers

Development District Helps Businesses in Mid-Columbia Find Their Footing

Traci Griffith, owner of Willow + Bark Boutique, received a loan from the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District in the early days of her business. “There aren’t a lot of loan options for small businesses, and I was very glad this was available,” she says. Photos courtesy of MCEDD

They don’t ride into town on white horses, but that’s the way many area business owners think of the Mid-Columbia Economic

Development District, a regionally focused agency that supports local businesses.

The district straddles the Columbia River and includes Wasco, Sherman, and Hood River counties in Oregon and Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington. Since 1969, its mission has been to promote the creation of family wage jobs; diversify the economic base; and grow, develop, and retain business and industry within the five-county district.

In service of those goals, MCEDD staff provides county economic development, grant-writing services, infrastructure project administration, and planning.

The district also offers business loans, but it doesn’t compete with banks. In fact, to secure an MCEDD loan, entrepreneurs have to show they have been turned down by banks.

“We’re a lender of last resort,” says MCEDD Executive Director Jessica Metta. That doesn’t mean MCEDD hands out money randomly.

“Sometimes people come to us first,” Jessica says. “If they don’t have a business plan, we will send them to the Small Business Development Center at Columbia Gorge Community College. If you’re an existing business, we need to see your profit and loss and see what your other financials look like.

In 2016, Steve Light and his wife, Laurie, opened the first brewery in The Dalles in more than a century. The Oregon Investment Board was part of the business’ growth.

“Ultimately, what we’re looking at is to see if you have the capacity to be able to pay the loan back.”

Jessica says the programs are flexible. “We can make the loan payment something that’s affordable to the business,” she says. “Let’s say it’s a 5-year loan where we can put a balloon payment at the end of it to help you get started and get your feet under you. As you grow, it can make you bankable to a commercial bank, and you get a commercial loan that probably has more favorable terms and pays us off.”

MCEDD has 3 revolving loan funds to help businesses in different geographic areas. As payments are made, the money—minus a small administrative fee—goes back into the collection of funds to be loaned out again.

MCEDD funds can be loaned to any business in the five-county area. The initial funding for the program came from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The second source, Mount Hood Economic Alliance funds, can be loaned to any business in the unusual combination of Wasco, Hood River, and Clackamas counties.

Jessica Metta has been with MCEDD for 14 years, the past three as executive director. Photo courtesy of Jessica Metta

The third, Oregon Investment Board funds, can be loaned to any business on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, which covers portions of Wasco, Hood River, and Multnomah counties.

The board can also make grants to nonprofit organizations and local governments offering employment and furthering the economic well-being of the National Scenic Area.

The latter was started with funds authorized in the 1986 National Scenic Area Act that created the Gorge Commission and the Scenic Area. The act authorized an initial $10 million, half to go to each state. The Washington Investment Board is administered by the Skamania County Economic Development Council.

Those familiar with politics know there is a difference between authorizing and appropriating government funds. Authorizing allows the government to spend the money; appropriating is actually distributing it. Although the act originally authorized $10 million, the final $2 million was not allocated until 2021. The economic impact of these MCEDD-administered programs has been significant.

From the 1980s through 2022, among the programs it administers, MCEDD has:

  • Lent more than $30 million.
  • Granted more than $1.5 million.
  • Created or retained 3,300 jobs.
  • Leveraged more than $59 million in public funding and $32 million in private funding.

Recently, MCEDD added a microlending program for borrowers who don’t have enough collateral. These loans can run up to $40,000, with MCEDD holding a Uniform Commercial Code filing, which is a type of lien on the business.

The district has made loans to a variety of businesses, from Dog River Pet Supply in Hood River to Freebridge Brewing and Willow + Bark Boutique in The Dalles to the Maupin Outdoor Store.

“MCEDD and Oregon Investment Board have been instrumental partners with Freebridge since its inception,” says Steve Light, co-owner of Freebridge Brewing. “Their term flexibility and willingness to come to our aid when we needed it most was paramount to our success. We couldn’t be more grateful for their support.”

“We’re here to brainstorm and be helpful,” Jessica says.