Group hopes to grow green businesses

TUESDAY, AUG. 21, 2007

A new grassroots movement hopes to foster investment in area “green” businesses — but first needs some green of its own.

The Sustainable Local Investments Partnership would seek to set up investment accounts at banks that would help bankroll loans for “environmentally sustainable and socially responsible” businesses that normally might not qualify for such financing.

The brainchild of volunteers from government agencies, area banks and nonprofits, the organization also would link SLIP-accredited loan applicants to technical assistance, said Jim Wavada, a solid waste planner with the state Department of Ecology.

While still in the planning stages, SLIP should be a nonprofit by the end of the year, and it hopes to establish a loan fund of about $1.5 million, said Wavada, chairman of a group designing the project. The concept has been incubating for about three years, he said.

The project will be “an incentive for new business models,” said Susanne Croft, an incentive specialist for the city of Spokane who has worked on the project on her own time. While the city supports it, it doesn’t have enough economic development staff to participate, she said.

As envisioned, banks might pass applicants that don’t qualify for normal commercial loans to a SLIP review committee, which might recommend a loan, Croft said. Consultants in Portland and Seattle are developing a loan-screening tool, Wavada said.

Loans might be funded by special savings accounts, perhaps with lower interest rates that could be passed along to loan applicants, Wavada said. Experts from the Department of Ecology or other sources could provide businesses with technical, environmental or other assistance, helping indemnify banks, he said. SLIP also might help underwrite loans using donations to the nonprofit, and SLIP might seek state funding similar to that currently used to underwrite lower interest rates for loans to women- and minority-owned businesses, he said.

Wheatland Bank, of Spokane, is interested in the concept, seeing it as a potential source of new loans and deposits and a way to promote sustainable thinking, said Dick Kunze, a vice president and loan officer. Kunze said he’s not sure if enough people would be willing to invest at a lower interest rate, but banks might like the program enough to accept lower rates if they can increase the volume of deposits.

“There’s certainly some ground to be covered with the development,” he said, adding that smaller banks may have an easier time signing off on new products.

American West and other banks have also expressed interest, Wavada said. SLIP plans to hold a training in February for loan officers and other officials, Wavada said.

The long-term goal is to discard the nonprofit and have member banks “come together and actually do this as a cooperative,” Wavada said.

“We wanted something that was kind of driven by their own self-interest, and I think we’re getting close,” he said.

Loans might fund environmental cleanup, innovation or small business that just want to grow in a sustainable way, Wavada said. He hopes to have a loan product identified by February.

“I think that the hard work is done,” Croft said. “It seems like there’s quite a lot of community interest in it already.”

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