By Don Spatz

Reading Eagle

Hector Ruiz became on of Reading’s newest business owners on May 31, buying the decades-old Tommy’s Café & Cabana Bar in the 200 block of Douglass Street, where he’d been the chef for most of 10 years.

The journey from being a fire hall dishwasher at 16 to proprietor – the first in his family even to own property – has been surreal, the 37-year-old Ruiz said as he sat among the bar’s old city memorabilia, including an old Reading Beer cooler that’s been there for at least 50 years and might be the only one still working.

But it took city financing to do the deal. Ruiz said he could not have taken over the business without it.

Ruiz is getting help from the city’s fledgling microloan program, offering a 3 percent fixed rate on loans from $1,000 to $35,000.

Begun in August, the loans can be taken for five to 10 years, and pay for such things as equipment, working capital, marketing, renovations or inventory. And they can be used in conjunction with other financing.

Ruiz received $35,000 from the city, and financing from the state and the Community First Fund. He’s applying the city money for startup costs and operating costs such as inventory and first payroll for his nine employees. “It seemed so amazing that it happened,” he said. “What’s really amazing is that three agencies came together on something.” Daniel S. Robinson, the city community development director whose department runs the program, said it’s gotten a lot of inquiries and several dozen businesses have filed preliminary applications.

So far, four loans have been made and others are pending, he said. “I’ve been impressed with the people coming in – African-Americans, Hispanics, women who own businesses,” Robinson said. He said the city gives preference to applications who would create new jobs, but that’s not a requirement. “We want businesses to stay here, and others to come in,” he said.

Safeguards in place

Robinson is acutely aware of the city’s past problems in documenting and collecting business loans. City Council is debating whether to write off nearly $1.8 million in 16 loads from the 1990s, most of which are considered uncollectible. Robinson said the new loan programs are run by the book. He said all are properly documented, and a third party – the nonprofit Community Initiative Development Corp. – does the underwriting and files the liens on the homes and properties to make sure there’s collateral. “The CIDC makes the decisions and tells the applicants yes or no, so there are no conflicts,” Robinson said, referring to some previous loans that went to relatives of city officials without proper documentation. “We’re running it like a bank,” he said. “We’re trying to take losing any money out of the equation.”

The city has $300,000 available for the loans, a pot that gets replenished as the money is paid back. The money came from the state for similar loans years ago that have been paid back and the city is recycling it. Meanwhile, Ruiz is making plans for the bar that has ample inside room as well as a double-deck cabana in a private patio out back.

The business will re-launch in early August as Sofrito Gastro Pub, he said.

Ruiz moved to Reading from Massachusetts in the 1990s and said he fell in love with the city.

“I’m hoping to be a part of the movement to bring Reading back to what it was,” he said

By JEFF OSTROWSKI

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Palm Beach County commissioners today unanimously approved a $24 million bond issue for a Broward County cosmetics company that wants to build a plant in Palm Springs.

Oxygen Development LLC plans to move from Deerfield Beach and employ up to 800 workers. The money for the bond issue comes from the county’s share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a federal stimulus package approved in February.

Oxygen Development owns 16.5 acres of vacant land at 1525 S. Congress Ave. in Palm Springs, Village Manager Karl Umberger said. It will use the money to build a 300,000-square-foot plant to develop and make skin and hair products.

Oxygen Development head Philippe Cohen told county commissioners that the plant would include 20,000 square feet of lab space. The company makes cosmetics for various brand names, he said.

Moving to Palm Springs would let Cohen build a new plant that’s closer to his workers, Umberger said.

“A lot of his employees actually live in this area, and they’re driving all the way to Deerfield,” Umberger said.

Privately held Oxygen Development hopes to begin construction by the end of the year, Umberger said. The company would employ 350 to 400 employees when it first moves and plans to expand to 750 to 800 workers.

The average salary would be $34,500, according to the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

While many of the jobs would be low-paying, Oxygen Development also employs higher-paid scientists and technicians, Umberger said.

The county approved a Recovery Zone Facility Bond for Oxygen Development. The county received $54 million for the bonds, and this is the first project under the program, said Kevin Johns, the county’s economic development director.

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