Building Better Communities News Flash: Community Banking Entrepreneurial Collaborative

By Jon Williams, ASLA, PLA- President & CEO of W&A Engineering

Although we have more than 50 employees, W&A Engineering is still considered a small, but growing, business. When the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans became available, W&A applied for a loan to keep our employees paid and to maintain our current staff levels during this pandemic shutdown. The loan process was challenging, but W&A had an established banking relationship with First American Bank, an approved Small Business Administration (SBA) lender, and we were able to successfully navigate the new process. But not all were so lucky.

During the course of a conversation about a potential project in Athens, Mayor Kelly Girtz mentioned to me that some of the small and minority-owned businesses in the Athens community were having difficulty accessing the PPP loans because they did not have an SBA banking relationship or because they didn’t understand the process and didn’t know who to ask for help. Realizing the effect this could have on our community, I decided to see if W&A could help other small businesses by leveraging the years of relationships that we have with so many local banks and helping these underserved businesses get access to an SBA approved bank that would increase their chances of receiving important emergency relief. I spent the next morning talking to several bank presidents in the Athens area, and I asked each of them to reserve 10 PPP loan applications for businesses in the community that were not existing customers. With the help of David Bradley, President/CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, we had 100 reserved PPP applications set aside for local small businesses by week’s end.

Together with Envision Athens and the Northeast Georgia Business Alliance, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Oconee County and Oglethorpe County chambers to help pre-qualify businesses through a minor vetting process and then pair them with the participating banks. We are calling the initiative the Community Banking Entrepreneurial Collaborative – and it is working! Since the rollout, we have paired 33 businesses with 8 local banks. Those small businesses would have otherwise been unable to receive the financial assistance they needed to help sustain their business during this difficult time. It makes me happy to know that W&A was able to help other local businesses and to see the community banks and the area Chambers, working through this together!