Cincinnati Access Fund: a new tool to support small businesses, build strong communities

“Main & Main,” the four-block business district at the corner of Madison Road and Whetsel Avenue, are at the heart of Madisonville — and the neighborhood’s redevelopment plan.


“Every neighborhood needs a focal point, a central gathering place, where neighbors can meet for a meal, to pick up dry goods, to run errands. (In Madisonville), neighbors talk fondly about the former meat market, theater, five and dime, shoe store, and burger joint,” says Sara Sheets, executive director of the Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (MCURC).


“Our work over the past 10 years has been focused on rebuilding that sense of place in Madisonville,” she continues.


Following a resident-created plan for the community and with help from LISC Greater Cincinnati, MCURC has assisted small businesses including Lala’s Blissful Bites, Mazunte Mercado, and Mad Llama Coffee with technical support and $200,000 in façade grant funding.

The work set the stage for the $30 million mixed-use development that broke ground this fall, Sheets says.


“These new small businesses are helping to establish the market in Madisonville when there wasn’t one just a few years ago. They’re also helping us to set the tone for the types of independent businesses we want to see here,” Sheets says.


“Most importantly,” she continues, “small businesses are bringing people to Madison and Whetsel, causing people to stop, and creating those third places where neighbors can meet one another, and where visitors can come and discover how great Madisonville really is.”


In Cincinnati and around the country, LISC continues to build strategies around supporting small businesses as a tool for building strong communities.


“We’re about finding partners to forge a culture of opportunity,” says Maurice Jones, president and CEO of LISC National. “We want to work to create great places to live, to work, to raise a family, to visit. … Supporting local entrepreneurs, helping them launch or expand their businesses, creates wealth and jobs in a community.”


LISC provides capital and support to small businesses, and leverages its relationships with other national philanthropies and corporations to find other sources of funding, as well as build partnerships between the public and private sectors.


LISC also puts residents and business owners at the center, Jones says, “to make sure they’re not being done to, but are being the authors of the work in their community.”


And this fall, LISC Cincinnati announced a new tool that brings all those roles together: the Cincinnati Access Fund.


The $3.5 million fund is a collaboration among Fifth Third Bank, the City of Cincinnati, and LISC Greater Cincinnati, and will provide needed financial support as well as technical assistance to women- and minority-owned small businesses.


“We talk about equity, and this is putting it into practice,” says Derrick Braziel, founder of MORTAR Cincinnati, which fosters minority entrepreneurs. “This is a major milestone.”


“I believe Cincinnati could become the most equitable ecosystem in America,” Braziel adds. “This is going to catalyze that.”


MORTAR is part of a network of Cincinnati entrepreneurial support organizations that works with LISC Greater Cincinnati to assist a growing number of small businesses. LISC has a partnership with Kiva, a crowdfunding loan program in which LISC provides a one-to-one match of funds raised for businesses vouched for by a trustee such as MORTAR.


Kiva loans are small — between $500 and $10,000. The Cincinnati Access Fund represents the next level of funding for businesses.


The Cincinnati Access Fund will offer two loan products:


  • Micro loans for small businesses that have had difficulty assessing traditional financing. Loan amounts are typically $100,000 or less.


  • Term loans designed to help small businesses grow revenue and employment capacity. Loan amounts typically range from $100,000 to $350,000.


Without a source like the Cincinnati Access Fund, Taren Kinebrew, owner of Sweet Petit Desserts, had to pull money from her personal accounts to open her shop in Over-The-Rhine five years ago. She was caught in a gap: Without assets, no one would loan her money, but without a shop, she couldn’t grow her business.


“What I see the CAF doing is filling that gap, understanding the small business owner and the value of sweat equity,” Kinebrew says. “If we can’t pull others up as we climb, what’s the point?”


The Cincinnati Access Fund is the latest in a string of similar programs LISC has launched in communities across the country, including Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. By providing support to small businesses, LISC helps lenders feel comfortable taking risks they might not otherwise try, and acts as a catalyst for investment across the region.


Fifth Third provided the fund’s initial capital of $1.2 million as part of their commitment to small business growth, especially for low- and moderate-income individuals and communities.


“We’re only as good as our strongest community,” says Byna Elliott, Fifth Third chief corporate community and economic development officer. “We need to help build a thriving community.”


The city has committed a $2 million loan loss reserve so the fund can share risk; it will also help make sure the fund can serve a variety of small businesses. A bank, nonprofit, and city collaboration unprecedented in Cincinnati, this fund brings together partners with deep knowledge and experience providing a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to reflect the vibrant local culture.


To Apply:

Interested small business owners should contact Amber David, LISC Greater Cincinnati’s small business specialist, at 513-723-2113 or [email protected]. After a pre-screening, business owners will be invited to submit a loan package or be referred to a technical assistance provider.

The series, Community Stories, is supported by LISC Greater Cincinnati. Learn more at
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