It’s no secret that Seattle, like many other major metropolitan areas in the country, is becoming less and less affordable to live and work. For small business owners and entrepreneurs looking to launch their ventures, this reality can be especially tough if they are looking to move into a brick and mortar space. But today, help may be on the horizon in the way of something called the Business Community Ownership (BCO) Fund.
“The BCO Fund is addressing commercial displacement, and empowering small businesses with long-term affordability and ownership of their commercial spaces to keep them rooted in our neighborhoods,” said Heidi Hall, Community Wealth Building Manager, Seattle Office of Economic Development. “Business ownership is one path to build generational wealth, and this stability helps business owners invest in their business growth and serve their community.”
The BCO Fund was announced this summer as a collaboration between the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development and Grow America, formerly the National Development Council. It’s a new investment model that addresses the rising cost of commercial rent in Seattle, which often affects neighborhoods and businesses owned by people of color, immigrants, women and LGBTQIA+ people. According to the City of Seattle, these communities continue to have less access to capital due to systemic inequities, racism and related barriers.
What the BCO Fund aims to do is secure fixed, affordable rents for business owners most at risk of displacement. Something that Chuck Depew, Managing Senior Director of Grow America, said is a long time coming.
“As businesses struggle with stability in real estate, the BCOF responds to control and stability for business owners so they can invest in their businesses without anxiety of over rising rents and lease renewals,” said Depew.
“Communities served by these businesses also see similar stability in services as well as control over real estate assets for continued use by community-serving businesses.
One Seattle BIPOC business, La Union Studio, an architecture and interior design firm, was hand picked to help launch this program and get word out. For more than five years, the founders of La Union Studio, Sergio Max Legon-Talamoni and Sonia-Lynn Abenojar worked from their home office in South Seattle and it was their dream to have their own commercial storefront. That is about to come true because of the BCO Fund.
We are really excited for the opportunity to grow our team and our staff,” said Legon-Talamoni. “The value is in freeing up our operating capital so that we can reinvest in the projects that we work on and the communities we serve.”
“We understand how big of a barrier it is for small businesses to insure they own commercial spaces and this just reduces those Barriers so much and we are ready to dive right in and not look back,” said Abenojar.
Hall said La Union was a perfect fit to help launch this initiative.
“La Union is a growing business needing to establish a larger location while staying in their community,” said Hall.
“They were ready when the program began and their work in commercial design makes them uniquely knowledgeable about the real estate problem the BCOF is trying to solve.”
But the BCO Fund will need sustained community support to work.
“The biggest challenge to the program’s growth is continued financial support from philanthropy,” said Depew. “Given the high costs of Seattle real estate and improvement costs, the funding necessary to keep rent affordable to businesses is a challenge.”
The BCO Fund is still in the pilot phase and is actively seeking project ideas. Projects will be prioritized for consideration based on the investment criteria and the projects’ stated community benefit.