Haines is more blunt. Mercy Corps Northwest’s increased visibility, he says, is in simple recognition that economic disasters are happening in the Pacific Northwest—moreover, right outside the door, in Old Town, the organization’s new neighborhood. “It was critical for us to have the most accessible and visible space in the building,” says Haines. “The growth of our part of Mercy Corps is a response to reality.”
Haines rolls his wheelchair to the head of a 10-foot-long oval table surrounded by 13 bankers, seasoned entrepreneurs, and Mercy Corps staffers who gather on the last Thursday of every month to weigh the pros and cons of loan applications for start-up businesses. The sums may be low, but the stakes are high, as none of the applicants have a prayer of finding financing anywhere but here.
Haines steeples his fingers and nods to Brian Fassett, a clean-cut lending manager and former Peace Corps volunteer, who opens the meeting with a snippet of good news: a Nicaraguan client who was selling plantains from a bicycle-mounted food cart on NE Alberta Street has, after a long struggle, finally paid off her $2,126 Mercy Corps Northwest loan. With nods of approval and a smattering of applause, the group begins munching on sandwiches (ordered from Meat Cheese Bread, an upscale deli that opened last year with an $11,333 loan from Mercy Corps Northwest) and surveying spreadsheets and credit reports. An unemployed and injured construction worker wants $16,200 to open a laundry machine repair business; a bankrupt nurse needs $24,798 to lease a storefront to sell medical scrubs to community college nursing students; an unemployed sawmill worker proposes a service that will pump sewage from pleasure boats moored at local marinas. He needs $30,081 to buy a floating Honey Bucket.
Playing prosecution, the loan committee cross-examines each application for weaknesses. But Haines’s staff, who are so practiced as an ensemble that they sometimes finish one another’s sentences, have done their homework. The committee rewards each of the first five applicants.
A sixth application, however, elicits deeper debate. It’s from an unemployed mortgage broker in Olympia, Washington, who needs $2,000 to pay for a mailer promoting a Web-based advertising business that, after six months, has been able to attract only 17 paying customers. He has a wife and three young children, but no income. They’ve burned through their $25,000 nest egg. After 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, his wife found a job as the assistant director of a nursing home, but she’s pulling in only $1,700 a month—more than $1,000 less than their mortgage payment. Their lender has initiated foreclosure.
“I’m a little bit worried that what we’re doing is gambling and not investing,” declares Nathan Beatty, a well-dressed 30-something commercial loan officer from First Republic Bank. “His situation obviously is very hard, and he’s desperate to get as much as he can. Maybe if we had a little more of a track record to show that this thing is taking off …”
In the end, Haines lets his Seattle-based lending manager make the call. He smiles when the answer is yes.
Banking is hardwired into every strand of this fifth-generation Wyoming native’s DNA. In the late 1800s, William Pugh, Haines’s great-grandfather, established two of Wyoming’s oldest banks. One catered to sheep and cattle ranchers. The other one, in the dusty railroad hub of Evanston, financed the entrepreneurial ambitions of impoverished Chinese migrant workers who laid the track for Union Pacific’s transcontinental line. Tucked away in the single-level, 1960s ranch house Haines owns uphill from the Oregon Zoo is a family heirloom: a grainy turn-of-the-century photograph depicting his grandmother as a little girl standing next to a costumed dragon on an Evanston street festooned for Chinese New Year.