With an eye toward helping high-risk small-business customers, a group of Southern California community banks is creating a loan pool.

Inland Empire Lenders Community Development Corp., with the backing of several Riverside County institutions, will begin distributing loans by August, according to Candace Hunter Wiest, group chairwoman and president of Inland Empire National Bank, a participant.

The development corporation follows similar efforts around the country, including the first of its kind, established in San Diego four years ago. As part of each program, banks receive credit under the Community Reinvestment Act.

"The goal of the program is to take customers who are nearly bankable, get them into the program, and then bring them up to bankable status," Ms. Wiest said. "These customers are nearly bankable, but not quite."

Michael A. Ocasio, executive director of the development corporation, said that although businesses owned by women and minorities will be the main target of the program, all small businesses are eligible.

"This is a throwback to banking's older days, when there used to be a thing called a character loan," he said.

Mr. Ocasio said the development corporation wants to begin with a loan pool of about $400,000 that would increase over time.

Although the corporation expects to offer loans of as much as $50,000, the average loan will likely range between $20,000 and 25,000. Ms. Wiest said 25 businesses are waiting to take advantage of the loans.

Among banks expressing interest in the program are: Citizens Business Bank, Ontario; FirstBank, Palm Desert; First Community Bank of the Desert, Yucca Valley; Valley Bank, Moreno Valley; Golden Pacific Bank, Ontario; and Bank of Hemet.

Mr. Ocasio - formerly a commercial loan officer for the California Southern Small Business Development Corp., San Bernardino - said he expects 20 to 25 banks eventually to take part in the new program.

The development corporation has received approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. After selling stock to the banks, the corporation will begin working with customers otherwise ineligible for small-business loans.

"Aside from the obvious CRA implications, there are additional benefits," Mr. Ocasio said. The risks of lending are shared among all the bank participants, he said, making it "more palatable" for them to lend in underserved areas.

The group will seek applicants with at least one year in business. "We're not doing any start-ups, because there's just too much risk," Ms. Wiest said.

Inland Empire Lenders Community Development Corp. initially expects to deliver credit through two lending programs - micro-cap loans and equity- gap guarantees.

Micro-cap loans with up to five-year terms will be offered to small, undercapitalized businesses. With equity-gap guarantees, the loan pool would guarantee participants enough equity to qualify them for SBA loans.

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