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Photo by Dave Flessner / Danielle Landrum of Locals Only Gifts and Goods talks about her experience winning an Idea Leap grant from the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union.

As a retailer on the North Shore selling locally made items for gifts, Danielle Landrum calls the pandemic-filled 2020 "the year of the lemon.

"We spent what was a tough year trying to make lemonade from lemons," said Landrum, who like most retail shops had to shut down the storefront of her Locals Only Gifts and Goods last spring amid the outbreak of COVID-19. "But one of the glasses of lemonade we enjoyed last year was winning the Idea Leap grant to allow us to hire a marketing specialist to help our business to adapt and grow."

Landrum said the Idea Leap program that has given her both loans and grants from the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union (TVFCU) has helped her 6-year-old business to diversify and grow. She said the program also has helped a variety of other small businesses that the retailer buys from to stock its local gift boxes.

Indeed, since Chattanooga's biggest credit union launched its micro-lending program in 2018 targeted at small businesses needing small loans to grow, the program has funded more than $3.8 million in loans to emerging and early-stage businesses in the Chattanooga area. The loans of up to $50,000 are made to businesses referred to the program by technical assistance providers, including Bright Bridge Capital, Co.Lab, LAUNCHChattanooga, SCORE, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and the Veterans Entrepreneurship program offered by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga business college.

The proceeds of those loans, and other funds contributed by the credit union, have also funded $125,000 in Idea Leap grants awarded to businesses that are picked by judges to be able to do the most with the one-time grants.

"It's our goal to help our community and we know that these small businesses may one day grow into much larger businesses," said Todd Fortner, president of Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union. "We want to make these investments and help these businesses get off the ground."

Most traditional commercial lenders aren't interested in making such small loans to businesses, especially those without much traditional collateral or at favorable interest rates for the borrower, Fortner said.

Shannon Anderson, co-owner of Chatta-Cakes Bakery, also won one of the top $7,000 grants from the Idea Leap program last year.

"Seven thousand dollars isn't a lot of money to most businesses, but to us, it was life changing," Anderson said. "We bought a lot of equipment that really helped out production and one of the best things turned out to be a cake case that spins and has lights to display what we make. Customers really appreciate being able to walk in and get a decorated cake on the spot."

On a rainy Monday morning to kick off National Small Business Week, TVFCU announced it is opening up applications for other small businesses to compete for additional Idea Leap grants this year. The credit union will award grants ranging from $5,000 up to $21,000 during Startup Week in October to five winners picked by a panel of judges.

To qualify for the grants, a business must be in operation for at least a year, have less than $1.5 million in annual sales and fewer than 20 employees and do business in TVFCU's 13-county area. On Monday, TVFCU also awarded $2,500 gifts to both the Urban League's NextLevel program and the UTC Veterans Entrepreneurship program for their efforts to aid startup companies.

"We want to continue to help our area's small businesses do well," said Tommy Nix, a vice president of business and commercial services who helped develop the Idea Leap program at TVFCU after he previously worked at the Tennessee Small Business Development Center. "When small businesses succeed, the entire community thrives."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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