As the holiday season approaches, South Jersey’s Main Streets, downtowns and business corridors are breaking out their festive finery to bring a little winter-wonderland illumination and decoration to areas of not only commerce but also community.
But for those thriving and lively thoroughfares to be home to local entrepreneurs throwing open their doors to welcome in holiday shoppers from the cold, they’re providing their services, products and expertise to those same neighbors year-round, all while infusing the local economy with the benefits of a bustling business landscape.
That collection of businesses, in turn, have “almost an unspoken buddy system” continuing a cycle that mutually boosts their reputations and bottom lines—much to the benefit of the customer—through a system that can encourage cooperation and connection when it leads with a community-first perspective.
“Small businesses are a vital part of the community’s economic circulatory system, that money gets recirculated,” says Janet Garraty, executive director of the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce. “There’s that ‘I know a gal’ or ‘I got a guy’ you get when you pick up the phone and call, say, the local hardware store for a good contractor in the area—that’s the other circulatory system. Small businesses are as much of a part of the community as its school systems, police departments and emergency services.”
From the municipal economy perspective, it certainly benefits the whole when a community, whether it’s a hidden gem or regionally known draw, keeps the capital coming in. But Nichelle N. Pace, vice president of the Camden Business Association, explains that patrons’ business is just one factor keeping local businesses buoyant, as contractual opportunities offer the long-term work that’s a boon to small business.
“The most crucial thing is for large corporations and companies to procure goods and services from our small businesses—that’s the driving force of what we’re forced on: It’s not just residents’ and consumer dollars, what we’re really focused on getting the contractual dollars for that local paper supplier, that local engineer, that local security firm, that can work with one of the larger anchor institutions,” she says. “That’s where the focus on growth comes from. We’re looking for more of a B2B opportunity to get those dollars circulating in our community.”
Engaging with an entrepreneurial community can also connect business leadership to the resources, education, partners, support and networking opportunities available today, an effort that local associations, chambers of commerce and other similarly minded organizations can certainly help with, no matter the hurdle a company might be up against.
“We have close to 450 businesses, and they’re pretty diverse,” Garraty begins, explaining how meeting all those needs calls for a varied slate of offerings. “We have robust networking events, we’ve also established a lot of entrepreneurial workshops and some professional-development workshops, we started a young professionals group, and these are all ways that we bring the community together. And we’re actively listening for what they need. Workforce is still an issue for a lot of different employers, for example—well, I’m on the board of the Workforce Development Board in Gloucester County … and we work in collaboration with the schools. That’s how we can work to pipeline employees their way, or interns who might turn into longer-term employees.”
And in Camden, revitalization and opportunity are part of a bigger societal narrative. As DEI, breaking systemic cycles and equitable efforts become more and more embraced if not better understood in the broader business world, helping historically marginalized communities empower themselves is the next step in strengthening a community, reinvigorating a city and ultimately bettering a region.
“One of our missions and values is collaboration, and the challenges of small business are not for one organization alone: It takes all of us within this business community, small and large, throughout this ecosystem to meet those challenges,” Pace observes. “It’s a part of that whole process of breaking down barriers. To right this ship or change directions, this is not just an exercise in business inclusivity: This is also an exercise in changing hearts and minds on how people do business, period. You hear buzzwords like ‘social impact’ investments,’ but we don’t want charity. We want economics: Give our small businesses contracts, put money behind sponsoring small business certification—that costs a lot of money for small business! We’re looking for things that will raise the economics of our community and get away from being a charity community, and that’s really crucial for us.”
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 11 (November 2023).
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