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Greensburg-based lending program awarded 'Oscar' in its field

The Progress Fund, a Greensburg-based nonprofit that lends money to the small-scale entrepreneurs traditional lenders normally would not help, has won a $2.75 million award from Wachovia Wells Fargo and the MacArthur Foundation.

The prize is the "Oscar" equivalent for community development financial institutions, said Progress Fund co-founder and Chief Executive Officer David Kahley.

"It's a big deal for us," said Kahley, who founded the nonprofit 14 years ago along with Karen Post, the fund's chief financial officer.

The NEXT Awards, as the prize is known, will be formally presented to The Progress Fund in Minneapolis Nov. 15.

The competition pitted The Progress Fund application against 66 others.

Kahley said the money will be recycled into more loans. Since its founding, The Progress Fund has handed out some $40 million in loans, including $4 million in the last five years to businesses trying to establish a foothold on the Great Allegheny Passage, the 141-mile biking-hiking trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.

The NEXT Awards was presented specifically for the fund's efforts on behalf of Allegheny Passage businesses. The Progress Fund's Trail Town Network -- representing the communities of Meyersdale, Rockwood, Confluence, Ohiopyle, Connellsville and West Newton -- was formed to help businesses in the area realize their full economic potential.

As much as anything, the NEXT Awards are awarded on the basis of how well programs such as Trail Town Network can be replicated in other parts of the country, Kahley said.

That process is under way, he said, with lending programs springing up to serve small, rural business enterprises in North Carolina, in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and along the C&O Canal Towpath, the bike-hike trail that connects in Cumberland with the Great Allegheny Passage and continues into Washington, D.C.

Jan and Michael Dofner, owners of the Levi Deal Mansion, a two-year-old bed-and-breakfast in Meyersdale, said a Progress Fund loan enabled them to start their business after a bank had turned down their loan application.

"They are character lenders," Jan Dofner said of Kahley and his group."They are looking for consistent, steady attention to the business plan. After all, that's where the rubber meets the road."

She said her business is on track to break even after three years and to make money thereafter.

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