A little known Small Business Administration program is helping businesses move up from renting to buying their properties or expand to a desirable new location.

The SBA 504 Loan Program lets businesses, with down payments of as little as 10 percent, take advantage of the real estate bottom’s great commercial property selection, reduced prices and unprecedented low interest rates.

Joe Molineaux, director of the Small Business Development Center at Stockton College, has steered some local business people aware of the real estate opportunity to the 504 Loan Program.

“More banks are looking at this,” Molineaux said. “It allows them to do more with real estate, and with the availability of real estate today, it makes sense.”

One such person was Nicola Owen, who needed more space to add a wellness center to her physical therapy practice.

When Molineaux suggested the loan program, it must have seemed like the last piece in a professional destiny that has been unfolding since age 15 for Owen, 53, of Linwood.

That was the age she knew she wanted to be a physical therapist, and so she attended Boston University for that specialty, she said. Then she dislocated her knee and became a physical therapy patient with Walter Zaulyczny back home.

Three years later, the university arranged an internship for her — by coincidence with the practice Zaulyczny had since started, Cape Atlantic Physical Therapy. That went well enough that he offered her a job after graduation, she said.

She took the job in 1994 and 14 years later bought the practice. “I went from being a patient there, to being a student there, to an employee and then to his employer after buying him out,” Owen said.

This year, she was ready to add the fitness and education programs, massage therapy, nutrition counseling and such to meet the ongoing client needs for toning, strength, weight loss, balance and general well being.

After considering several properties with more space and on main roads, she chose 1224 Tilton Road in Northfield, the former location of the Sound Waves audio store.

She said Molineaux introduced her to Jim Hughes of the Regional Business Assistance Corp., which provided 40 percent of the financing (SBA guaranteed).

“He walked me through the whole process,” Owen said. “You’d think there’d be a lot of time completing papers and forms, and there were a lot, but it was pretty straightforward and easy to follow, and he was always available to help.”

She said the building, which cost $652,000, is a sturdy masonry design with 10-foot ceilings. As part of its renewal, she has added windows and changed to a lighter color, with new signage.

After renting in Linwood for 25 years, the practice this month moved to the new location as Cape Atlantic Physical Therapy and Wellness Center. A grand opening with refreshments and prizes will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26.

Phil Barber used the 504 Loan Program to expand as well, but by purchasing an additional restaurant to complement his successful Avalon Links Restaurant in Middle Township.

“We had a well-developed staff at our existing location and that enabled me to take on this next challenge,” said Barber, 48, of Cape May Court House. “I also think this is probably a very good time to be investing in real estate.”

His investment was in the new Avalon Family Grille, on Dune Drive in Avalon, in the building of the former Maggie’s Restaurant.

Avalon Family Grille opened right before Memorial Day, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and seating 130 inside and out.

Barber said conventional financing of the new restaurant would have been nearly impossible.

“Honestly, in the current economic situation, conventional banks are not looking to finance restaurants,” he said, especially in the local tourism market. “Banks like to have some variance in what they’re lending to and almost all of the local banks are already loaded up with restaurants at this point.”

The 504 Loan Program, however, made it possible for a local bank to get involved without assuming the same level of risk as direct private lending.

Barber said Ocean City Home Bank provided 50 percent of the financing under the program. “Renee Garr, the loan officer (and vice president) who handled it, did a fantastic job with the loan process.”

In a 504 loan, the lending bank has the first lien on the property, Molineaux said, and its loan is more than adequately secured by the value of the property.

Barber said the program made it possible to take advantage of the unusual market opportunity and the growth potential of his business.

“We’re not going to see 5 to 5½ percent for commercial money for a very long time, if ever again,” he said. “And our business is showing growth at a time when most restaurants are treading water or going in the other direction.”

Such conditions are ideal for businesses to consider a 504 loan, Molineaux said, which requires that the property be occupied by the business.

His small-business center, with help from the commercial real estate division of Prudential Fox & Roach, Realtors, in Northfield, gave a seminar on 504 loans to more than 50 business people on Tuesday in Somers Point.

Use of the program is increasing, he said, and if it’s still underutilized, “it’s only because people don’t know enough about it.”

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