By ELAINE ALFARO
La Mesa’s one-stop boulevard for shopping, pizza, tacos, and coffee could soon welcome some more options to the neighborhood.
Entrepreneurs in San Diego now have an incentive to open up shop in the city of La Mesa. On July 1, applications for the La Mesa Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program (LEAP) opened.
LEAP is the first program of its kind in California and, potentially, the nation to allocate a portion of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) —a 2021 economic stimulus bill — to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs. $20,000 is available to each entrepreneur accepted into the program after fulfilling eligibility requirements.
“We see a lot of innovative programs with the caveat that they’re not usually coming out of the small local city governments,” said James Sly, president of San Diego’s East County Economic Development Council (ECEDC). “I think it’s very forward-thinking of La Mesa to decide that this is how they’re going to try to reinvest that money back into the community, and, hopefully, they’ll be able to see that return on investment.”
Mayor Dr. Mark Arapostathis and Sly, created LEAP with the hopes of helping the La Mesa business community overcome the setbacks that resulted from COVID-19 and welcome more local businesses.
“As we started to see more and more vacancy in the downtown and all across the business areas of La Mesa, we wanted to promote more local businesses or independent businesses as opposed to national chains and corporate business,” said Arapostathis.
“The conversation became, ‘What can we do to replace all these vacancies, bring more jobs, and strengthen the small business community?” said Sly.
The answer was LEAP.
Arapostathis said offering support for the small business community and residents through a program like LEAP is something a local government should participate in.
“This is one of the things we [the city] should do: Try to provide an avenue to open businesses that the residents want. That’s part of our responsibility,” said Arapostathis.
Prior to the ARPA relief funds, Arapostathis explained that offering city financial support to local businesses was a difficult, if not impossible, task, which is why this is potentially the first of its kind.
“The city is limited. When people were trying to raise money for businesses that were struggling during the pandemic, it was a Chamber of Commerce, an EDC, or another outside source because [the city] can’t raise money or make money,” remarked Arapostathis. “As the federal and state governments gave us a road map of what we could use [with the ARPA], we started to brainstorm regarding how to best help the business community with relief funds but also encourage people to step out on a limb if they were anxious to open a business.”
The resulting LEAP plan requires participants to complete workshops hosted by the ECEDC and one-on-one advising sessions with business owners and advisors. The $20,000 will be dispersed in installment grants based on a payment schedule outlined in the LEAP guide.
Jeff Bernstein, a business advisor with 45 years of experience in the flooring retailer industry and a workshop presenter for the ECEDC’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), said a program like this is something he’s been hoping for to help entrepreneurs like the ones he worked with.
“This is the kind of program I have only wished for over the past few years,” said Bernstein. “This is really aimed at startups. They’ve got a lot of challenges, and they need support. They have a lot of obstacles to overturn.”
Bernstein will be helping the entrepreneurs hurdle the initial business obstacles in the first two LEAP workshops, “Optimizing Your Start-Up: Simple Steps to Starting Your Small Business” and “Business Plans That Get Results.”
“I learned a lot of things. I also made a lot of mistakes along the way,” added Bernstein. “I kind of feel like it’s my obligation to be able to pass both the positives and the negatives along so people can be more successful.”
Applications for LEAP are available until July 30. However, the program will run until 2026, focusing on long-term efforts to help entrepreneurs, the business community and the city bounce back from COVID-19.
“This will benefit the businesses, but in the end, it will also benefit the city because we want the city to become a destination,” added Arapostathis. “We want people to come here, live here, shop here. It’s mutually beneficial for both groups.”
To learn more or apply, visit: www.eastcountyedc.org/leap-program/.
— Elaine Alfaro is a journalism student at Point Loma Nazarene University and a former intern for the La Mesa Courier.