Celebrating 10 Years serving the community

Issue-9-Web

The not-for-profit organization known today as WEDI [Westminster Economic Development Initiative] had a pretty humble beginning. Bonnie Smith has worked with them almost from the very start. She has witnessed the various changes and improvements happening not just within the program, but all over the West Side community. This February, WEDI is celebrating their 10-year anniversary. We sat down with Bonnie at the WEDI headquarters on Grant Street to discuss how the program has grown over the years, helping immigrants to start businesses and thereby leading in the evolution of the West Side.

How and why did WEDI begin?

[1] We [Westminster Presbyterian Church] had been working with Habitat for Humanity, and the city suggested that we adopt a street. We adopted Ferguson Avenue and we had work crews which helped built houses. The church felt close to this part of the city. We ended up working with kids from this area on their homework, and it all coalesced on the West Side.

Between 2004 and 2006, we hoped to raise some significant money and wanted to reach out into the community. We felt that we should stay involved with the West Side. We decided to help businesses get started here. Instead of taking our money and giving it to people, we wanted to help people make money themselves. Two of our founders made a contribution with the stipulation that this would get started. In order to look for grants, we became our own not-for-profit, our own entity separate from the church, in 2006. There was no staff at that time, just one person working ten hours a week.

One of founders, the president of the board, said to me when I was recruited, “Bonnie, you know how to speak Spanish. That will be fine. The West Side is full of Spanish-speaking people.” I laugh because when I got over here and started working, I found that my Spanish was of very little help. The West Side was full of immigrants from all over the world. WEDI did not know that until I started working. It was grassroots. We would sit at the library on Grant and having an open talk. In 2009 we started collaborating with agencies and community leaders, such as Councilman David Rivera, Journey’s End, PUSH Buffalo, and Jericho Road. [2] We discussed how to help the West Side and came up with an international marketplace, which we eventually named the West Side Bazaar.

Didn’t you change locations [for the West Side Bazaar] within the last few years?

We started on Grant near Lafayette [3]. We had six booths. It was very small. The only staff member was me, and I said to the board that we should eliminate my position and put that money towards a manager of the Bazaar.

Tell us about the challenges you faced back when you started.

There were naysayers when we started the bazaar in 2009, who said we couldn’t do it. One of the challenges was due to the competitive nature of various agencies in the area. We didn’t intend to be competitive. But this competitiveness was something we helped people to get away from. Surely there was enough need for all of us to be there, and even more need than what we could accomplish. Growing is difficult; you come to plateaus. I remember going to the board and saying that if we don’t hire an Executive Director we might as well close the doors because we couldn’t rely on volunteers. They heard me and we figured out how to finance it. Working without staff was very difficult.

How far ahead did you think as far as the future of WEDI?

We never had a vision as big as WEDI has become. Never. We had no idea it could become what it has become. In starting the bazaar, we realized that the people we were working with couldn’t get any money; banks don’t like to administer loans that small, and most didn’t have good credit. It became apparent we had to find a way to loan money, and we had a loan fund. We eventually started lending money informally.  Right after the bazaar opened, we decided to apply for the 21st Century Grant from the Community Foundation – a competitive grant. We won after a tie with the Theodore Roosevelt Historic Site. With this $100,000, we expanded the bazaar. [4] We built the kitchen and can now accommodate about 21 merchants. WEDI has continued to grow our loan program and client base in the bazaar and the community.

Along the way with these evolutions, what were some standout success stories?

Louise Sano is the standout success. She has two stores on Grant St [5]. She is a success; a person who came to WEDI with all the talent needed to start a business, having run a business in Namibia. You could see in the bazaar that she was going places. Every day she was changing displays and engaging customers. All she needed was a leg up.  [6] We had a similiar woman [ Novi Paluch] from Indonesia who hadn’t run a business but was bright and educated. She brought  beautiful things into the bazaar and she has taken over a shop downtown in the Market Arcade.

The West Side Bazaar looks small compared to the people inside. Do you plan to build another bigger space?

Back when it was six vendors, we felt it was better to start small and learn. We hadn’t found anyone throughout the country who had really done this. Now we feel it’s running well and it’s full. We are now bursting at the seams and would love to expand. But we want to do it wisely and need the funds.

When we started serving food, people loved the atmosphere and the concept. We originally thought that it would be mostly take out, but people wanted to sit down and eat. So we rearranged everything and bought tables and chairs so that there was enough room.

There is something about the concept of what we are doing that catches people’s imagination and we will definitely continue to grow. I think we did some right things along the way and did not try to expand too much.

So you host Winterfest every year?

This is our sixth or seventh Winterfest since we started it upstairs in the parish hall. It has grown from 60 people to 400. It is our major fundraising event and meant to get word out in the community. The level of recognition has grown, and we are really pleased and hope it continues.

Now that you are celebrating your 10 year anniversary, do
you have any major goals?

Most definitely. We are expanding our loan program a great deal. We are still making micro-loans. The average one is $8,000. Banks won’t take the risks that we will take on people. When people take a loan from us, they commit to working with us, learning, and having a business coach.

I know that WEDI hosts literacy tutoring. Can you speak more
about that?

It started way before WEDI, but became part of WEDI around 2008/2009. It was a mission of the church. We reassessed the program two or three years ago, since the number of kids was dwindling. The board came up with an excellent plan based on asking the question, “Where do we fit?” We have refugee children coming here now at different stages and abilities. We decided they don’t just need help with homework, they need to learn how to read English. If they learn to read and write English they can succeed here. We focus on that now and have 25 kids consistently.

Do you have advice for people who want to start a business of their own in Buffalo?

We don’t restrict ourselves to refugees and immigrants. It’s for anybody who wants to start a micro enterprise . My advice is to take your dream and get it down on paper. When you write it down – whether it’s in English or your first language –  that process is so important but hard for people to do. People come in and they are budding over with a wonderful idea and you can tell it’s wonderful. But in the process of writing it down, you see where you need to fill things in. That’s the beginning of a business plan. Be sure you want to do the hard work and that it’s not just that you want to be your own boss. When you start, it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Have patience. Your first year you are knocking your head against a wall. The second year it looks a little better. The third year it all comes together.

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