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Agency awarded $100,000 grant

Members of the Community Foundation's 21st Century Fund awarded $100,000 Tuesday night to the organizers of a microenterprise incubator serving immigrants and refugees on Buffalo's Lower West Side.

Bonnie Smith, president of Westminster Economic Development Initiative, was ecstatic when it was announced that her organization had beat out three other finalists for the grant award.

"I'm in another world. This is just phenomenal. This is the culmination of all the work that we've been doing," Smith said.

Her joyous reaction followed a close vote by about 300 members of the 21st Century Fund who had gathered for the final presentations at WNED-TV Studios.

For the past 3 1/2 years, the Westminster Economic Development Initiative has been working with new immigrants and refugees on the city's Lower West Side, providing them with micro loans and setting them up in vendor booths to help them develop small businesses.

The group looks to move to a bigger site to accommodate more prospective vendors and seeks to build a commercial kitchen that will allow vendors to prepare baked goods for sale.

"We now have six merchants in the bazzaar. We will have 30 merchants. That's what this money does for us. We can bring 24 more people into the bazzaar," Smith said.

Perhaps no one was as thrilled by the award as Louise Sano, a merchant already in the bazzaar. Sano, an immigrant from Rwanda, has been in Buffalo since 2007 and runs a business called Global Village, through which she sells crafts that she acquires from all over the world.

"I'm inspired by unique pieces from all over the world, as long as it has an impact and the 'wow' factor," Sano said. "I've been a vendor for one year and I will be opening my own store on [May 9] at 216 Grant Street. That's next to my family, because I need to stay here. I cannot go very far from them," Sano said with a cheerful grin.

Cynthia Schwartz, chairwoman of the grants review committee for the 21st Century Fund, said there were 24 applications for the $100,000 grant award this year.

"What the application review committee does is to ensure that the projects that move forward to the membership are financially viable projects [and] that they have stable board leadership," Schwartz said. "We want to be sure that what the members vote are projects sponsored by organizations that we know will use the money wisely and are sustainable."

The other finalists were the Community Action Organization, which sought funding for a proposed green equity project to grow fresh vegetables and raise fresh fish that would be made available to residents on Buffalo's East Side, where residents have very limited access to fresh foods; the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which is using Days Park as a pilot site for intensive organic maintenance of the park grounds; and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation, which initially tied with the Westminster Economic Development Initiative until a tie-breaker was held Tuesday.