Maryland small businesses get creative with casino funded loans

Wyatt Harrison’s business idea was simply enough.


Print original photos on a wooden background. He had his “aha” moment while working at a surf shop in Ocean City.

“A man came in and wanted an original photograph on wood,” Harrison  said. “It was a no-brainer.”

A year after launching his business, Plak That, the Ocean City resident wanted to print all his orders in house.

All he needed was a printer. The only problem, no bank would give him a loan. Local printing presses wanted 90 percent down.

“It was hard to get to the next level,” he said. “Then I heard about the VOLT program and everything changed.”

VOLT, or video lottery terminals, is a unique initiative set up by the Maryland General Assembly.

By law, 1.5 percent of total revenue from Maryland’s lottery machines go into a loan fund specifically set up to boost small-time businesses, many with an emphasis on minority or women ventures.

In less than a year, more than 20 loans have been given out across the state, promoting some innovative business ventures.

“The proposals have been ambitious and creative,” said Stephen Primosch, vice-president of financial services for the Anne Arundel Economic Corporation. “Especially in the tech department.”

After getting approved for a VOLT loan, Harrison bought his printing press. This year, he’s planning to surpass sales.

He just landed his first contract with a beer company in Canada. He’s also experimenting with other materials to print on.

“This wouldn’t of been possible without Volt,” he said.

Joseph Mowbrey, owner of Blue Flame Gas and Heating in Berlin, Md. used his loan to build his first store, a store he promptly calls “the showcase.”


For the last seven years, he used his car as his office, going all over the Eastern Shore making repairs and selling gas stoves.


“I’ve been here all my life,” Mowbrey  said. “No one was fixing them, so I got into the business.”


Mowbrey said the VOLT loan was instrumental him helping him find a permanent base for his business.  He has also hired his first employee and hopes to double profits in the next two years.


“Bigger things are on the horizon,” he said. “Even in the land of gas stoves.”


According to the VOLT Fund guidelines, half of the money allocated for loans has to go to businesses within 10 miles of one of the state’s casinos.


The rest can go to any venture in Maryland.


This past year, Anne Arundel was allotted $3.3 million of the $7.8 million fund, while $3.5 million went to Meridian Management Group, a private investment firm in Baltimore, to distribute. The remaining $1 million went to Maryland Capital Enterprises, a nonprofit micro-lender based in Salisbury.


Primroch said the casino revenue approach to boosting business is unique. To his knowledge, no other state has implemented a program like this for distributing commercial loans.


“I’ve done my research,” he said. “This is a ‘one of a kind’ approach to growing business.”


In Anne Arundel County, all of the loans have been allocated for the year. Primoch said the loans have retained 96 jobs, created 132 jobs and caused an additional $8,498,910 in total investment.


So far, about 70 percent of the loans were distributed to traditional businesses, while about 30 percent were given to tech companies.


Light Point Security, a cloud-based software security firm in Catonsville that received a $250,000 loan, and SameGrain, a mobile social networking platform based in Baltimore, which received $250,000.


Jason Kaplan, CEO of Milestone Pod, said the loan has helped his company continue their focus in getting their product into retail stores.


Milestone Pod, which is based in Howard County, created a running device that attaches to an athlete’s shoe.


It keeps track of how many miles the shoes have run, alerting a consumer of when to buy a new pair.  The information can be synced to a person’s phone.


Since its launch, Kaplan says the company has big plans to launch nationally.


“We hope to hire more people and continue to grow,” he said. “We’ve come a long way from three guys with an idea.”


When the casinos in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County open, the loan program is expected to get even bigger as the current loans are paid back with interest and more revenue is brought in from other lottery machines.


Harrison said one misconception about the program is that some people believe it’s a grant-based program.


“It’s definitely not,” he said. “I am making the payments every month.”


As his business expands, Harrison is excited to see his online store continue to grow. He also hopes to hire his first employee.


“It’s all in the works,” he said. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”