Doug Wilson (from left), USDA Rural Development State Director for Illinois, congratulates Champion Community Investment's board President Brenda Malone and Executive Director Rex Duncan, Thursday at John A. Logan College.  

CARTERVILLE — USDA is investing $1.5 million in Southern Illinois economic development through Champion Community Investments,

“All of the progress we have made has been with USDA. We just couldn’t have done what we do without them,” Rex Duncan, executive director of CCI, said.

Duncan gave a brief history of CCI. It was founded in 2002 as Southern Illinois Coal Belt Champion Community Investments. They started Connect SI in 2005 and made their first loan in 2006. They closed their 100th loan in 2016. To date, Champion Community Investments has given loans totaling $6.6 million.

To highlight the partnership between the two groups, Duncan showcased the success of two local businesses and a community project.

In 2011, Mark Novoa of Ground FX Flooring in Herrin and his wife found out they were expecting natural triplets. He decided he need to take his career to the next level and started Ground FX Flooring, a mobile flooring showroom.

“The problem was even though I thought I had a good idea, I essentially had no money,” Novoa said.

He got involved with the Small Business Development Center in Carbondale and developed a business plan. Then was able to secure a $40,000 loan through Duncan and Jeff Ashauer, loan manager at CCI.

One year later, the business moved into a 20,000 square foot warehouse with a 2,000 square foot showroom. They now have 12 employees in the field and four in the office.

“We took a $40,000 loan and turned it into a business that has produced anywhere between $80 and $120,000 every three days,” Novoa said. “We have been very blessed.”

Crystal Lukens, owner of Crystal’s Catering in Herrin, also spoke at the event.

Lukens left a “real” job in human services and workforce development to devote her time to a new catering business and event business and wine bar called Kindling.

“We generated a lot of revenue, but we didn’t make a lot of money,” Lukens said.

She said she left that business with a lot of debt, and eventually started a new business called Crystal’s Catering and More with the help of Champion Community Investments. The business is more than catering and can help with everything from selecting a venue to catering, decorations and florals, linen and table rentals and more.

“They gave us things that banks would not,” Lukens said, adding they have expertise in growing and developing small businesses.

This year, the business expanded into downtown Carterville with Rise Above It Bakery, which opened in June on Division Street.

Crystal’s has five full-time employees and anywhere between two and 45 part-time employees, depending on upcoming events. The bakery also has five full-time and 15 part-time employees.

Duncan also talked about Champion Community Investments’ role in building the Colp Neighborhood Playground. CCI worked with the planning committee to leverage contributions and donor confidence from its 501c3 status. With the help of donors who gave more than $35,000 and Dennis White and the Highway Construction Careers Training Program class at John A. Logan College, the children of Colp and Number 9 have a safe, attractive place to play.

Doug Wilson, USDA Rural Development State Director for Illinois, said the area has a lot of positive things to build on.

“I am really impressed to reach a $6 million level when your first grant, I believe, was $90,000. You have definitely learned how to leverage and expanded beyond some of the other elements there,” Wilson said.

For more information about Champion Community Investments and its projects, visit ccinvestments.org.

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Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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