We at Rhode Island Inno spoke with Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor, discussing a number of innovation-spurring initiatives at the state level. In this piece, we wanted to highlight the part of the conversation where we discussed the Main Street Rhode Island Streetscape Improvement Fund and the Commerce Corporation’s Small Business Loan Fund. (Check out our first part here, where we talk about CommerceRI’s Innovation Vouchers).

They’re two initiatives that tackle innovation in a more traditional form, a brick-and-mortar approach to “driving change for the better,” as we define innovation at Rhode Island Inno. After all, when discussing the Ocean State innovation ecosystem, one can’t exclude small businesses and the work on the state level to help them scale.

The Main Street Fund is a program designed to bolster streetscapes across Rhode Island — meaning things like “enhanced sidewalks, new street furniture, new way-finding signage, upgraded building facades or improved street lighting.”

In each case, available funding can go up to $300,000 for applicable projects, with applicants having, at minimum, 30 percent of the total cost in matching funds to start. They can be anything from donated real estate or via federal or local grants.

So far, communities from East Bay to Jamestown and Smithfield and beyond have received MSFs.

Then, of course, is the small business loan program, which aims to give up to $500,000 in funding to small- to mid-sized businesses in the Rhode Island ecosystem, which represent 96 percent of all in-state enterprises. It’s an effort to curb debt and lock down private financing. “We know that these firms are innovators creating new ideas, processes, and technologies to deliver better products and services — they are the companies that are injecting new life into Rhode Island’s economy,” the CommerceRI website states.

Rhode Island Inno: How does the Small Business Loan Fund work?
Secretary Pryor: The method that we utilize involves investing our funding with intermediary lending organizations. There are six non-profit and for-profit lenders, with whom we have invested. These lenders, in turn, make the individual loans to small businesses. They are lending organizations with professional staff, the protocols and acumen to do such work.

How many investments and loans have you made?
We’ve, through our lenders, closed 30 loans to dates, with an investment of over a million dollars leveraged into $3.75 million in loans.

Why is this kind of work important?
We’re proud of this program with over 30 loans made to date. Beyond that, we recognize that the economic activity thorough out our state is not just in central business districts of our largest cities. For this reason we have invested in our streetscapes [via] the Main Street Program.

What is the Main Street Program?
It enables us to [work with a] municipality or nonprofit in a local community. [It] improves the literal optics of the front door of the community for businesses, so this funding enables the upgrade of street furniture, lighting, facades of businesses in a given district. We have rolled this program out across the state.

How many projects have you done thus far?
[There have been] 16 different projects … authorized. [For example,] in downtown Providence, there are new way-finding signs. [They’re] small investments that really open up the welcome mat for Main Streetscapes.

How do communities get involved?
They apply to us.

How do programs like these spur innovation forward in Rhode Island? 
It’s essential that we support startups, and small enterprises throughout the Rhode Island economy. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. It’s crucial that we provide the resrouces — intellectual and financial — [that] such enterprises need to succeed. … These are elements that enable these ventures to survive and thrive.