New La Luz Center loan program aims to boost Sonoma Valley’s small businesses
Cliff Casolla witnessed the transformation of old, rundown cars into beautiful pieces of art working at a Sears Point hot rod garage while in high school and college.
The Sonoma native went on to become a police officer in San Francisco. As a son of a classic car enthusiast who was surrounded by cars for much of his life, engine oil ran through his veins. After six years on the police force, he decided to give up his badge and return to the garage full time.
Casolla last month purchased the old Marshall’s Body Shop in Glen Ellen. The move, he said, would have not been possible without the support of local philanthropist Simon Blattner and La Luz Center, the Sonoma Valley nonprofit group.
Casolla, 29, received a $10,000 loan through a program La Luz recently launched to help small businesses remain viable in the valley. Blattner and his wife, Kimberly, who sits on the nonprofit’s board, provided $50,000 to get the revolving loan program off the ground.
They’re working with Exchange Bank to provide low-interest-rate loans to businesses that don’t have much of a credit history and likely would not qualify for a traditional bank loan, said Barbara Hughes, former executive director of the Community Foundation Sonoma County who has helped roll out the program. She said the money was established as a guarantee fund, so that if a business failed to pay back the loan, the bank would then be able to recover its loss.
“Getting that first loan is a challenge,” she said.
The goal is to make the region’s small businesses more “bankable,” said Simon Blattner, who served as the CEO of Rittenhouse Paper Co. before it was purchased by Nashua Corporation.
A good relationship established with lenders and a solid credit history can expand horizons for small businesses, Blattner said.
“Every business guy in the world who has grown a business has borrowed money,” he said.
Casolla said a traditional bank loan was not an option for him. He said the man he purchased the shop from was an “old school, off-the-books kind of guy” who didn’t keep extensive records. Casolla had to tap most of his savings to purchase the shop. That left him with little cash flow in case a piece of equipment broke and needed to be replaced.
“I didn’t have a safety net for my business,” he said.
But La Luz’s loan program gave him the security he needed, Casolla said. His is one of two businesses to so far receive a loan through new lending venture.
The effort is part of a broader push to revitalize the urban area north of the city of Sonoma, which is home to a diverse population, including many lower-income and Latino residents.
A decadeslong project to overhaul the Highway 12 corridor has resumed work, with sidewalk, lighting and roadway improvements under construction since spring.
The county has put up $1 million for a loan program that helps businesses upgrade their facades, and about half of the projects, comprising more than a dozen businesses, are in The Springs area north of Sonoma.
Also, a $27 million affordable housing project broke ground Friday in the area. It calls for a total of 60 units for families, with rents ranging from $390 to just over $1,000 a month.