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New African Development Center in Willmar, Minn., to offer small business loans and promote cultural understanding

Charles Cunningham of Minneapolis applies a layer of paint to the exterior of the new African Development Center of Minnesota at 516 Litchfield Avenue in downtown Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

The African Development Center of Minneapolis will open a satellite office in Willmar in the coming week, signaling a significant investment in the community.

The ADC is a non-profit community development and commercial lending agency that seeks to help newcomers gain financial understanding and independence. Its Willmar office will serve Somali communities in Willmar, St. Cloud and Marshall.

Abdirizak Mahboub will be moving to Willmar in the next week to run the office. His wife and three children will join him later in September.

The center purchased the building at 516 Litchfield Ave. in downtown Willmar and has been remodeling it inside and out. A façade and awning were removed to reveal the original decorative brick on the front of the building.

The interior has been remodeled to make several offices, a reception area and rooms for classes and meetings. Walls and the exterior trim are painted green and orange, the signature colors of the ADC.

A grand opening is scheduled for noon to 7 p.m. Sept. 15. The 500 block of Litchfield Avenue will be closed for the celebration, which will feature food and music.

Mahboub introduced himself to representatives of nonprofits agencies this week at a networking meeting of the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits. He told them he has lived in the United States since 1981 and moved from the East Coast to the Twin Cities in 2007. He recently completed his master's degree in public affairs from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

The purchase of the building and the addition of full-time staff is a sign of the ADC's commitment to the area, Mahboub said. "We mean business coming to Willmar."

Willmar was chosen because "we wanted to get in the heart of the west," he said. "It's a very welcoming city; we are glad to be here in the Willmar area."

According to an ADC fact sheet, the ADC has a current portfolio of 139 clients and $4.4 million in loans. In the past five years, it has served more than 3,000 people, made 292 loans and funded 168 projects.

ADC programs are open to any Minnesotan without regard to ethnicity. The organization has been recognized as the top small business lender in Minneapolis for several years in a row.

Mahboub and other staff members from the center's Minneapolis office will work with small businesses and offer frequent classes for first-time homebuyers and financial literacy. The plan is to have three to four different training sessions each month, he said.

The classes will be taught mainly in English, he said. The center encourages new Americans going into business to learn English so they can serve their entire community.

One of the center's goals is to help newcomers build good credit and learn how to navigate an unfamiliar financial system.

"This (Somali) community comes with a lot of baggage in terms of not understanding the financial system," he said. People who don't understand the financial system can be taken advantage of, he added.

Mahboub said the center offers low-interest business loans with traditional financing or with options that allow Muslims to avoid paying interest.

Because the ADC is a financial agency and not a social service provider, he said, he will develop relationships with nonprofits in the community.

"No one organization can do everything; we all need each other," he said. "We try to partner with organizations that serve our clients."

Mahboub offered to help where he could to promote cultural understanding between the African newcomers and the rest of the community.

"We can connect on a lot of these things," said Roberto Valdez Jr., director of the Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center. Both organizations work with small businesses.

Christie Kurth of the Willmar Area Food Shelf said she would seek out his assistance in helping her and her staff better understand and serve Somali clients. "We do our best," she said, but they would welcome more cultural training.

In recent years, the food shelf has gone from serving an average of one Somali family a month to serving one family a day.

Mahboub said he will also try to help refugees deal with the culture shock they have experienced. It can take years to get used to a new country, he said. He joked that he experienced a serious culture shock when he came to this country and encountered a lesser one when he moved to the Midwest. "I'm trying to fit in."

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

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