Impact grants for businesses released for the Walla Walla Valley

Sebastian Squire, News Reporter

The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation (DWWF) received $632,250 worth of grants to distribute to for-profit startups. The grants will be given out in two separate rounds: the first will consist of technical assistance grants, and the second will be cash rewards.

The first round of grants are memberships to organizations geared towards helping businesses in their “idea and growth stage,” according to the foundation.

Executive Director of the DWWF Kathryn Witherington explained that the first round of grants being distributed consists of four separate options, valued from $2,000 to $5,000.

“It’s a Kindling Coworking Membership, it’s an annual membership to Makerspace [called WonderWorx, a workshop for business startups] that’s opening up, a membership to the downtown farmers market or a branding package,” Witherington said. “We have gotten the directive from [the Department of] Commerce that we need to give out at least 50 [grants].”

According to Witherington, as of Feb. 15, the DWWF had received 22 applications. 

“There is always something neat and different,” Witherington said. “There’s a lot of exciting entrepreneurial energy out there right now, so we are open to all industries [and] all ideas.”

Although grants are open to all small businesses, those owned by BIPOC entrepreneurs, women, veterans and businesses in rural areas are being given priority for the grants.

“Reaching some of these groups that historically have been put out by intention from funding is, of course, a priority,” Witherington said. “We have an advisory committee that we chose very intentionally because of both the breadth of their reach throughout the entire region, as well as their depth into some of these communities that we don’t always reach.”

In early March, the second round of grants is slated to begin. This consists of a competitive investment conference held by a newly-formed forum called Verge Conference. Awards are given in a number of sizes, ranging from around $1,250 to $100,000, according to Witherington.

Nick Croghan is a founder of Verge Conference, as well as an owner of Kindling Coworking, one of the organizations included in the technical assistance impact grants.

“It’s been a long-term plan of mine to introduce an investment conference into the Walla Walla Valley,” Croghan said. “The grant was the catalyst for it coming to fruition right now.”

Croghan cited the importance of a “communications scaffold” to ensure that the grants are accessible to people with different language backgrounds. 

“Part of that is also making sure that we can remove as many linguistic barriers as we can, so we’re trying to make sure that Spanish speakers, primarily, are able to interact with and engage with all of the application processes,” Croghan said.

The grants were part of a larger $34.5 million investment by the Small Business Innovation Fund using federal coronavirus relief funds appropriated by the state legislature.

Linda Womack is the managing director for small business, finance and community support programs at the Washington State Department of Commerce. 

“We know that many of the small businesses have suffered through COVID-19 and currently with inflation and other factors,” Womack said. “We’re just hoping that with this fund that the businesses are getting the support that they need.”

Womack said that $32 million of the funds have been distributed to 23 different organizations. She said that the reason that the total $34.5 million was not spent was due to some organizations not passing the department’s due diligence process.

“We plan to roll the other two million [dollars] over so that we can provide more services in the next biennium, but that requires a Legislative proviso. We’re working on that right now,” Womack said.