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After Sackets Harbor cafe goes belly up, JCIDA will refer unpaid loan to collection agency

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SACKETS HARBOR — Two local development agencies are trying to have loans totaling $25,000 paid back by the former owner of a failed business.

JVO Cafe & Bakery, owned by Jill A. VanOcker, closed in October. Her unpaid loans will be sent to a collection agency.

The loans, consisting of $12,500 from the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency and $12,500 from the Sackets Harbor Local Development Corp., will be considered by the agency’s loan review committee April 1 for collection referral. In addition to the $25,000 loan principal, Ms. VanOcker owes about $900 in unpaid interest and $60 in late fees, according to Lyle V. Eaton, JCIDA chief financial officer. Numerous efforts by the agencies to reach Ms. VanOcker, who launched the business in July 2012, have been unsuccessful since last fall.

Ms. VanOcker was given the $25,000 taxpayer-backed loan from the two agencies in the fall of 2012, which she needed to keep the business at Madison Barracks open. During the agency’s loan review meeting in October 2012, Ms. VanOcker told committee members that she would use the funding to launch online ordering on the shop’s website to deliver food, such as trays of gourmet sandwiches and pastries, to customers in the Watertown area. The cafe was open for breakfast and lunch four days a week and for dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.

The only member who objected to the loan at that Oct. 23 meeting in 2012 was committee Chairwoman Michelle D. Pfaff, who cited Ms. VanOcker’s limited income as a red flag. A retired commercial lender who worked for Community Bank for 15 years, Mrs. Pfaff said at the meeting that no bank would be willing to make such a loan because of the high risk involved.

“It seems like it’s going to be tough for her to make the payments,” she said at the time.

But during a phone interview Thursday, Mrs. Pfaff said she doesn’t blame the board for choosing to lend Ms. VanOcker the money.

“We’re in the business to take some risks on businesses that have some employment and benefit to the community,” she said. “We have a lot of loans that haven’t gone so well and a lot that have gone very well, and it’s because we’re in this business to take on higher risk loans.”

Donald L. DiMonda, president of the Sackets Harbor LDC’s board of directors and a JCIDA board member, had supported the loan in the fall of 2012. He said it is unfortunate that Ms. VanOcker’s business plan, which seemed credible at the time, was not successful. He admitted it was a high-risk loan, but said board members were convinced that Ms. VanOcker had an opportunity to succeed.

“She was fighting against some tough economic conditions,” Mr. DiMonda said. “In the wintertime it gets kind of quiet around here, and there was construction going on that might have hindered it a little bit. The loan was a judgment call. In hindsight, you wish the plan would have been laid out in such a fashion that it would have been successful. But you do your due diligence on the business plan and have to take what people say at face value and have faith that they’re going to follow through.”

Mr. DiMonda said it was the first participation loan made by the Sackets Harbor LDC with the JCIDA that has failed. Other loans made by the Sackets Harbor agency, which launched its microloan program about three years ago in cooperation with JCIDA, have gone to the Hops Spot restaurant, SUP Sackets Harbor and Lake Ontario Playhouse.

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