Virtue Juice Bar opened in Vacaville in April 2019, and restricted hours under the pandemic less than a year later cut into sales. The Solano Small Business Development Center helped the startup keep all 14 employees by working with the NorCal SBDC Restaurant Program to apply for local, state and federal relief funds. (courtesy of Solano-Napa SBDC)
Solano, Napa and Sonoma Small Business Help Centers Reorganize Resources as Demand Grows

Organizations that help small businesses start, survive and thrive in Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties have recently revamped their responsibilities and resources. And it comes as they respond to a noticeable increase in requests from aspiring entrepreneurs during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Napa County was added to the Solano Small Business Development Center, and the Sonoma County Center was taken under the wing of a new host organization.

Launched in 1976, SBDCs are part of a nationwide program to connect entrepreneurs with free advisors who can help them set up business systems, identify problems and seek financial assistance. The centers are partly funded by the US Small Business Administration and partly by state agencies, which in California is the Governor’s Office for Business and Economic Development, also known as GO-Biz.

The former Napa-Sonoma SBDC had been hosted by Napa Valley College since 2011, led the past eight by recently retired Mary Cervantes. The Northern California SBDC Network, which handles hosting contracts for more than a dozen centers in the region, last year solicited hosting proposals for Solano, Napa and Solano counties. The Solano County Workforce Development Board expanded its contract to include Napa County, and the Metro Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce won the hosting contract for Sonoma County.

“We are very pleased with the growth we have had at Solano over the past few years, and (NorCal SBDC) has asked us to add Napa County to our responsibility,” said Tim Murrill, director of the new Solano- Napa SBDC. and head of the Solano center for three years. “There is a lot of continuity between the two counties. Many people in Solano live and work in Napa (county), and vice versa.

In 2018, the Solano SBDC was working with 190 active client companies, but that number grew to 1,350 last year and now to about 1,700 with the addition of Napa County, Murrill said. Over the past two years, the Solano Center said it helped clients hire 475 people, start 78 businesses, secure $63 million in new capital and increase sales by $17 million.

Louise Dawson was hired to lead the new Sonoma SBDC. A year before the pandemic, she launched a restaurant training program for the NorCal SBDC network, drawing on her experience running two restaurants and a large catering company. She had also served as operations manager for receivership specialists, who ran businesses under the control of the courts.

And the past few months have been busy at work, Dawson said. The center currently receives 20 to 25 calls per day. It has 10 business advisers, four of whom speak Spanish, including Dawson.

“I don’t know how Mary (Cervantes) did when she ran Napa and Sonoma,” Dawson said. “Sonoma needs its own center because it has a very strong program.”

Looking at Sonoma County alone, the center reported helping more than 1,128 clients, creating 359 new jobs and securing $32 million in capital.

Call volume also increased for the Solano-Napa SBDC this year, Murrill said. Last year there were only about three new customers per week for the Solano center, and so far this year the average has been 10.

“Over the past six months and especially since the start of this year, a lot of people want to start a business now,” Murrill said. “Many are trying to figure out if they want to go back to work. Many companies tell them they have to come back to the office.

That’s one of the reasons the addition of Napa County was attractive, he said. He is accompanied by seven contracted business advisers, two of whom speak Spanish. The Solano Center previously had only one Spanish speaker among its nearly two dozen counselors.

This is critical, as the Solano-Napa SBDC has now been awarded the contract by the state Office of the Small Business Advocate to provide $2,500 micro-grants in Napa County as well as Solano. To reach the quarter of the counties population that is Hispanic, the center has signed micro-grant marketing agreements with the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in Solano and Napa counties.

To qualify for these grants, businesses must have five or fewer employees and less than $50,000 in annual revenue. The money is intended to help employers missed out by previous rounds of federal and state pandemic relief, such as SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program loans or Economic Impact Disaster Loans ( EIDL).

With the $500,000 allocated to Solano’s micro-grants, the goal is to help up to 180 local businesses, Murrill said. The $175,000 for Napa is expected to help 56 businesses.

The Sonoma SBDC is working on its own grant program through the NorCal SBDC Network’s Dream Fund (norcalsbdc.org/dream). The planned grants of $5,000 and $10,000 are for startups excluded from pandemic relief programs because they did not have a full year of business in 2019. But before they can apply through Lendistry, applicants must follow 11 hours of training over five weeks followed by individual work with an adviser. The first series of classes begins on April 7.

NorCal SBDC plans to fund 1,000 grants across the region.

“But there is an exception for underserved areas,” Dawson said.

Sonoma County would qualify for this because of its large populations of farmworkers, Hispanics and other people of color, she said.

Solano-Napa SBDC is also bringing back Napa Valley College’s Youth Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition, which had been held for more than a decade before its two-year pandemic hiatus. Travis Credit Union sets up the cash prize for the best business plans submitted by local high school and community college students. Local business people will help judge the plans.

“We help bring the next generation of entrepreneurs into the fold,” Murrill said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Prior to The Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He graduated from Walla Walla University. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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