November 11, 2007 in Business

With a SNAP, she’s making a difference

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs hired Kerri Rodkey six years ago to head up its micro-enterprise loan program. From the day she walked in the door, she was thinking macro.

After more than a decade working with local and state agencies to spur growth in rural Eastern Washington, Rodkey says she was frustrated by incremental improvements that were not making much of a difference.

She recalls a sobering evaluation of her Community Revitalization Team’s effort by the Okanogan County Economic Development Council. Yes, the team had helped increase employment by 3 percent, but that merely kept pace with population growth. Per capita income actually declined.

She moved on to another Department of Community Trade and Economic Development initiative, the social enterprises program, which made grants to nonprofits that were helping start small businesses. The money ran out.

Although appreciative of the work done by CTED, “I decided to get out of being a consultant and see what I could actually do,” says Rodkey, who had focused on rural development as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The Central Valley High School graduate had earned an undergraduate degree in sociology at Eastern Washington University, marrying and giving birth to two now-adult children in the process.

Ray Rieckers, who heads SNAP’s housing programs, says it was Rodkey’s broad experience that set her apart from other applicants. She knew how to build business relationships, and where SNAP could help the community.

In 2001, the micro-enterprise program was working with $180,000 in Northwest Business Development Association grants. SNAP screened applicants, provided training, and helped write business plans. The association itself made the loans. If borrowers looked like they were having problems, SNAP intervened.

The program made good loans, Rodkey says, but too few, and processing took too much time. As her office worked out those kinks, Rodkey started looking for more money.

She scored first with Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provided $150,000 over four years. That was leveraged into 31 loans for $355,000. Writeoffs have been less than 1 percent.

Another 47 loans were funded with grants from the City of Spokane and Spokane County. Again, loan performance has been good.

All told, SNAP has made over 120 loans for more than $1 million.

Meanwhile, Rodkey also implemented Neighborhood Assets in conjunction with the Numerica and Washington State Employees credit unions. The program teaches basic money management skills that qualify participants to open savings accounts. Some may also graduate to Individual Development Accounts that leverage state and federal money into investments in homes, businesses or education.

Rodkey says 135 clients have received up to $4,000 to match $2,000 in personal savings. She expects to open another 100 accounts in the next two years.

She estimates SNAP efforts have produced more than $7 million in community benefits, including the value of homes purchased and businesses expanded.

“That is the kind of impact that I was not able to see in my work before,” Rodkey says. “The over-arching goal behind this whole thing is asset-building.”

Gene Fitzpatrick, Numerica’s vice president for lending, says Rodkey and her staff understand the needs and capabilities of SNAP clients, and the constraints on lenders.

The numbers may be relatively small, he says, but not the achievements.

“When there’s a success, it’s really great, and there have been a number of them.”

Rodkey continues to expand SNAP efforts, in the meantime holding down what she calls a second job as the wife of activist minister Paul Rodkey, pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, an unabashedly liberal congregation. She has little time left for pottery, her “tactile outlet.”

Rodkey credits Rieckers and former Northwest Business Development Association head Fred Schunter for mentoring as she pulled SNAP’s economic development efforts together. With the team SNAP now has, she says, “All I do is raise money and come up with hare-brained ideas.”

Still thinking macro.

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