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WAM-BC growing; has given out $40K in loans

Ricardo Rodriguez, owner of Los Primos restaurant in downtown Willmar, prepares lunch for a customer Thursday in the commercial kitchen he is renting at the WAM-BC headquarters. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Growth continues for the Willmar Area Multicultural-Business Center and the businesses it advises.

With the help of a federal grant received last year, the community agency has loaned $40,000 in micro-loans so far to area businesses, of-fered ad-vice to more than 30 busines-ses and he-lped those businesses create 14 new jobs.

Director Roberto Valdez said the federal grant's micro-loan program has helped the agency expand its work with businesses and also make improvements to its headquarters on Fourth Street Southwest in downtown Willmar.

The building now includes Los Primos restaurant and a classroom with computers.

Los Primos moved downtown about two months ago, and he likes it a lot, said owner Ricardo Rodriguez.

"It's better," he said, because he sees more people now. Los Primos has been in business for about four years, with most of that time spent at a Lakeland Drive location in eastern Willmar. Rodriguez consulted with Valdez when he first started his business.

In the downtown location, the restaurant is able to have outdoor tables for diners, something Valdez said appeals to many people.

Los Primos is renting the commercial kitchen at the Willmar Area Multicultural-Business Center headquarters.

The agency developed the community commercial kitchen several years ago, to be used by people who were trying to start food businesses. However, it never had the consistent use needed to break even, Valdez said.

When WAM-BC moved into some space next door, it provided an opening to develop a restaurant on site and also to develop the classroom. The classroom is used for language classes and training in accounting and marketing for business owners.

Valdez said he has seen what he considers a natural progression in the growth of minority-owned businesses in Willmar. The minority business community has grown from providing for basic needs like food to service businesses like insurance agents and lawyers. The next step is larger employers, like construction.

"Construction and agriculture is something we're coming into a lot now," Valdez said. That includes consulting with a construction business and working on workforce development with large dairy operations.

Valdez said business consultant Jeff Madsen has been a good addition to the center. Madsen is a Willmar native who returned to the city after earning his master's in business administration.

"We've worked well as a team," he said.

Madsen has been able to help business owners understand their financial situations and assist with business plans and marketing plans.

Madsen said he and Valdez have probably spent more than 2,200 hours combined offering technical assistance and business consulting in the past year. He's also offered many hours of training in using QuickBooks financial software.

Madsen has done a good job in the past year of working with cultural norms and "business-owner norms," said Valdez, who owns his own small business.

"Many of us are not as strong in financials as we could be," he said, and Madsen has helped bridge that gap for business owners.

Willmar Area Multicultural-Business Center programs are open to any low-income business owner. About 90 percent of the clients are Latino, 5 percent Somali and 5 percent Caucasian, they said. About 90 percent of the clients speak English. The center has worked with businesses in five area counties.

"We're trying to build a foundation for the community, for people who are here for the long haul," Valdez said.

A number of minority businesses are thriving in downtown Willmar and own their own buildings. That shows a commitment to putting down roots in the community, he said.

Madsen said the center also tries to spend its money locally and to build local partnerships. They are developing a resource page on the center's website to list businesses and services available in the community.

Valdez said they can't require businesses to use local resources, but they do recommend using local attorneys, accountants, insurance agents and suppliers.

"We want to show the community that we are engaging in the community and being socially responsible," he said. "I think people are starting to see these businesses as an asset to the community."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340