Business Communities

Spotlight On: Mountain BizWorks

Hi-Wire. Photo by Javier Bolera, courtesy of Explore Asheville

By Emma Castleberry

For entrepreneurs and business owners in Asheville, Mountain BizWorks has become a household name. Officially categorized as a US Treasury-certified nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI), Mountain BizWorks has been making loans to small businesses in Western North Carolina for more than 30 years. “What makes Mountain BizWorks unique is that all loan decisions and relationships are managed locally, and we work to ensure our clients’ success by offering highly customized, peer-to-peer business coaching by an extensive network of local, successful business owners,” says executive director Matthew Raker.

Vessels of Hope. Sarah Wells Rolland, artist

When the pandemic began, Asheville experienced dramatic losses in revenue and jobs. Mountain BizWorks’ services became even more pivotal during this challenging time, as evidenced by a dramatic increase in lending. In 2019, Mountain BizWorks did $4.5 million in lending and served 1,300 individuals through classes and training programs. Now, in the first six months of 2020, the organization has done more than $19 million in lending and served more than 2,000 entrepreneurs with its training programs. The organization has also increased some of its outreach in response to the pandemic. “It has always been crucial for us to ensure that we are deeply serving communities of color and during this pandemic, we made a choice to significantly amplify our outreach effort,” says Raker. “We know that during times of crisis, entrepreneurs of color tend to be disproportionately affected and receive the least amount of support, and we’ve been working to try to flip this paradigm in Western North Carolina.”

Furthermore, Mountain BizWorks was chosen to administer the $5 million Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund created by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority using occupancy tax collections designated for tourism product development. “While securing the authorization from the North Carolina General Assembly to use occupancy tax collections in this way was itself a monumental challenge, administering this critically needed assistance quickly, fairly and equitably was perhaps an even bigger task,” says Stephanie Brown, former president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Mountain BizWorks was the perfect agency to take it on.”

Lexington Glassworks.
Photo by Steven McBride, courtesy of Explore Asheville

Almost 450 independent businesses applied for grant funding during the submission period in the last two weeks of May, with the total amount of requests exceeding $13.5 million. Mountain BizWorks chose grant recipients based on financial need; their plans for using the grant to reopen; the financial sustainability of the business; the impact of the business on tourism; and how the grant would affect job retention and recovery. Grants were awarded to 394 businesses, reinstating or creating jobs for nearly 4,800 residents. The grants ranged from micro-grants of $2,000 to full grants of $50,000. Out of the total funds dispersed, 55 percent were given to women-led businesses and 18 percent to minority-led businesses. Most of the grants went to businesses with fewer than 25 employees. Sarah Wells Rolland, owner and founder of The Village Potters Clay Center, is a grant awardee. “This grant comes at a time when we at The Village Potters Clay Center, like so many businesses, are reinventing ourselves, requiring investment at a time when there is no revenue,” she says. “This grant could not have come at a better time for us.”

Brown applauds Mountain BizWorks for completing the enormous task of administration so quickly. “Despite the unprecedented challenges of the timeline,” she says, “Mountain BizWorks did not cut any corners on the support provided to applicants or the rigor of the review.” And Mountain BizWorks will continue to provide support to the grant recipients by connecting them with training programs and resource partners according to the needs they outlined in their applications. “We believe that when small businesses succeed,” says Raker, “we all prosper.”

By The Numbers

Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund
• $5 million: Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund created by the Buncombe County TDA with occupancy tax revenue dedicated to tourism product development
• 394: Businesses funded, from a pool of 421 eligible applicants
• $2,000-$50,000: Range of awards made, from micro-grants, to full grants to businesses with multiple locations in Buncombe
• 4,787: Jobs retained, recovered, or created
• 7: Weeks from fund signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper until initial disbursements
• 63: Grants made to Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs)
• 232: Grants made to Women Business Enterprises (WBEs)
59: Grants made to businesses outside Asheville city limits

Mountain BizWorks has a diverse lineup of virtual learning opportunities happening in late summer and early fall. These include a Craft Your Commerce Workshop series, an Outdoor Economy Conference, the business planning course Foundations (now specifically catered to opening a business during COVID-19) and a Financial Tools course. For more information, visit

Leave a Comment