By Emma Castleberry
The Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing economic opportunity in rural areas of North Carolina, is playing a significant role in the state’s recovery from COVID-19. As the pandemic was beginning to impact North Carolina at the end of March, Golden LEAF partnered with the NC Rural Center to launch the NC COVID-19 Rapid Recovery Loan program. “The NC Rural Center has worked with the Golden LEAF Foundation previously on providing rapid assistance to businesses affected by hurricanes, so the two organizations already had the muscle memory and the infrastructure that allowed us to set up this program in a matter of days,” says NC Rural Center president Patrick Woodie.
Golden LEAF provided $15 million in launch funding for the program, which enlisted the help of a number of nonprofit lenders, including Business Expansion Funding Corporation (BEFCOR), Carolina Small Business Development Fund, Mountain Bizworks, Natural Capital Investment Fund, Piedmont Business Capital, Sequoyah Fund and Thread Capital. “This innovative partnership streamlines the process for a business to receive assistance through one common application and underwriting process,” says Scott T. Hamilton, president and CEO of Golden LEAF. The program was met with broad bipartisan support and, as of June, nearly $13 million in loans had been distributed to about 360 recipients. The state provided a $125 million appropriation for this program, and has provided appropriations for Golden LEAF’s other disaster recovery programs.
The LEAF in the organization’s name stands for Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation. Golden LEAF was founded in 1999 to receive 50 percent of the annual payments made by cigarette manufacturers to North Carolina under a 46-state agreement established that same year. State leaders formed Golden LEAF to apply these funds to an endowment that would create lasting change in the state’s “rural and tobacco-dependent communities.” A rural county is defined as having an average population density of 250 people or less per square mile, and almost all of the counties in North Carolina meet this definition. “Tobacco-dependent was defined in 1999 to include not only farming but other aspects of the supply chain such as manufacturing and processing,” says Hamilton. Golden LEAF also serves economically distressed communities identified by the Department of Commerce Tier System.
The organization invests the funds from the settlement agreement with cigarette manufacturers and uses the returns to provide grants to a variety of programs, such as agriculture, workforce training and job creation. At the beginning of June, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors announced $16.1 million in funding for 47 projects across five program areas. Awards include the construction of a 500,000-gallon elevated water tank in Rockingham County that will create 403 jobs; support for 15 new or enhanced workforce development programs; and 30 projects to support recovery from Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian. These grants are in addition to the organization’s support for the COVID-19 loan program.
The NC COVID-19 Rapid Recovery Loan Program serves all 100 counties in the state—not only rural ones—but Woodie explains that the impact of this crisis will likely affect rural areas disproportionately. “We’ve often said at the Rural Center that when urban North Carolina gets a cold, rural North Carolina gets pneumonia,” he says. “Our entire state has been affected by the pandemic, but due to having an older population in general and a higher prevalence of chronic health conditions overall, our rural communities will most likely be hit harder and take longer to recover. Rural small businesses already face challenges around accessing capital and other resources for economic development, so supporting rural entrepreneurs with this program helps ensure they don’t lose too much ground and our rural economies can rebuild.”
Small-business owners affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) can learn more about the NC COVID-19 Rapid Recovery Loan Program and apply for a loan at NCRapidRecovery.org. To speak with someone about this program or other resources available to small businesses, contact Business Link North Carolina (BLNC) at 800.228.8443.