The Bureau, flush with federal cash, is now accepting offers for new business

Do you have an idea for a business?

If you’re willing to open in La Mesa, the city is willing to give you $20,000.

Applications opened Friday for the La Mesa Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program, known as LEAP, which could make the city the first in the region to use federal relief funds for new stores.

“This program will fill a void,” Mayor Mark Arapostathis said in an interview. Residents were constantly asking for more stores and restaurants, he said, and this allowed the city to take a more direct role in supporting business owners, who in turn could fill buildings that have emptied out amid the pandemic.

An estimated 5.5 percent of local storefronts were recently empty, a higher rate than the region, officials said.

The project is inherently risky.

Nationally, about a fifth of new businesses close within the first two years, according to an analysis by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that runs from 1994 to 2015.

The Board hopes to beat that trend through intensive coaching and training.

Applicants must commit to working one-on-one with a counselor, reviewing potential sites, and attending classes such as “Preparing for Business Loans” and “Pitching Your Product to Retail Shoppers.”

That could add up to 10 or more hours a week for months under the proposal, officials said.

As participants advance, they can receive an initial payment of $10,000 and up to two additional payments of $5,000 to hire staff, pay rent and cover other expenses, and it is not a loan. If the business goes under, it is not necessary to return the money.

Leaders also noted that, unlike programs that encourage small businesses in exchange for partial ownership, the city is not interested in equity. Officials just want a more vibrant community. (And maybe some taxes).

“If I live in La Mesa and work in La Mesa, it’s a lot easier for me to volunteer at my kids’ school or coach their soccer team,” said James Sly, director of East County Economic Development. Council, which will help oversee the program with the Small Business Development Center.

Applications can be submitted online at eastcountyedc.org/leap-program.

Existing businesses that want to expand their physical sites are also eligible, according to program guidelines, though officials said they plan to move away from chains.

The application window closes at the end of July. Another round is possible, depending on the pitches received this month.

The Board hopes to eventually support at least 40 bills out of the $800,000 the City Council set aside from the American Bailout Act. About $80,000 of that money will go to administrative costs.

The Board received more than $10.8 million in total.

The program is scheduled to last until 2026, the deadline for spending federal aid, though leaders expressed hope that a high success rate could lead to more funding.

Questions may be directed to Lyn Dedmon, Assistant City Manager, at 619-667-1339 or ldedmon@cityoflamesa.us.

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