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Pontiac nonprofit gives $2,500 grants to small businesses, encouraging local investments and collaboration

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Lisa Washington turned a side hustle into a successful business model.

The “homegrown” Pontiac resident’s business, Washington Events, was one of 10 city businesses recently awarded $2,500 from the Pontiac Community Foundation. Grants were issued to help small businesses recover from the pandemic.

A total of 108 small businesses applied for the grants. Applications were accepted throughout May; winners were announced in June.

The 10 businesses are: April’s Famous Bakes; Serenity Care 350; Washington Events; Tots Learning Center & Child Care; Over The Top Towel & Linen Service; Caked Up; Quest Cheer and Dance; Messy Aces Rib Shack; GoFarr, and Plain and Fancy Food.

Money came from a Pontiac Funders Collaborative investment.

Washington Events is a corporate meeting planning firm that handles small business aspects, virtual assistant services for nonprofits, and hosts corporate and political events in areas like event management, conferences and workshop development.

Washington got her LLC in 2013, but it was about a decade earlier when she saw the potential of running a full-time event management operation.

“I was in one of those reinventing moments back then, saying, ‘What do I want to restart myself in doing?’ because the market was so different,” she said. “I decided to take what was just a side hustle and make it something more tailored to the corporate and political industry, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Her staffing is contingent on events. She has hired up to nine employees for single events; has two-to-three on-call event managers; and has a part-time employee who helps her in her shared workspace on North Saginaw Street.

Washington stands outside her shared workspace on North Saginaw Street, in Pontiac.

As the upcoming city primary election looms, Washington said she has been approached by numerous mayoral and city council candidates. Instead, she is using her time and grant dollars to regroup and rebrand her business.

“It is very refreshing to see different organizations saying, ‘We’re not just some urban community that’s not about something, that we stand for something. We do have pride and are willing to take back our city and watch it grow and develop,’’ Washington said. “It’s slowly but surely coming about. The people in the forefront are definitely there.”

Scott Stewart, the foundation’s vice president of programs, said they focused on small businesses owned and operated by people of color, as well as brick-and-mortar businesses.

Applicants were asked how the pandemic affected them and how $2,500 would aid them in the long term. Some, for example, mentioned web development resources.

“Money isn’t always the thing they need the most,” Stewart said. “Sometimes, it’s that support and technical assistance.”

He said that some businesses, like April’s Famous Bakes, had a building prior to COVID-19 but has altered its focus towards selling at farmers’ markets.

“A lot of these businesses have pivoted really well during COVID and could use an investment to get to the next stage,” he said.

He said the foundation continues to bring different partners to the table, acting as a gateway for services while providing capital, networking  and other needs.

“We think we have an opportunity to start anew and build that relationship from the ground up,” Stewart added. “I think there’s been an overall lack of true investment in the city.”

Tina Caverly originally founded Tots Learning Center & Child Care out of her home in 2012, getting her LLC in 2014 and moving into her current location on North Perry Street.

The center looks after children between newborn age and 12 years old.

“It has to be a passion,” Caverly said. “When I needed child care for my kids and going through and doing walkthroughs through different childcares and seeing what they provide, it was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Some of it is pretty scary. And then the cost of it is really scary.”

Most of her clients live in Pontiac, approximately 98% of whom depend on subsidies. She has six employees, two of which are part-time.

Tina Caverly has owned and operated Tots Learning Center & Child Care in Pontiac since 2012.

Caverly does her best to keep it affordable, she added, saying that current enrollment is 25 children. Prior to the pandemic, there were 54 children.

“It hurts. It definitely hurts,” she said. “A lot of costs have went up. The staff wants to be paid more. So, it does take a lot of financial hardship to accommodate all that.”

She has already spent her grant money to pay for utilities and rent for the month of May.

Since COVID-19 her center has been open between 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most of her referrals come from word of mouth or Google searches.

She said the business has been successful because instead of lurking in the shadows, she is always there. Her clients know who she is.

“I really believe here we care about our children and families, and that goes a long way,” she said. “The children feel the nursery and feel the love. We just have a bond here.”