‘Lifeblood of the Economy’

by Matt Cosentino | Nov 24, 2021
‘Lifeblood of the Economy’

Before she was elected mayor of Washington Township in 2016, Joann Gattinelli was in the restaurant industry for 20 years, many of those spent running a pizzeria in town with her husband. Because of that background, she has made it a point of emphasis throughout her administration to be a supporter of area businesses of all sizes, particularly small ones. Of course, nobody knew until the pandemic hit in March 2020 just how instrumental that kind of assistance would turn out to be for business owners who were struggling to pay their rent, make payroll and keep their doors open.

“I am a prior small business owner, so from the get-go I knew the pains, the struggles and everything that a small business owner has to go through,” Gattinelli says. “But what I was enlightened by was the amount of support and the contributions and sponsorship of the community, knowing that small business is the backbone of our state. Without supporting small business, truly what do we have? A lot of our larger corporations started out as a small business, so I feel that all of us have a responsibility to dedicate ourselves to the small businesses and help them through their struggles.”

Fortunately, from the municipal to the county and state levels, there are plenty of programs designed to keep Main Street and small businesses in New Jersey thriving, and that support has only ramped up since the pandemic began. According to Tim Sullivan, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), his organization has approved 92,000 pandemic relief awards totaling more than $660 million, and New Jersey ranks third among states in the amount of grants distributed to small businesses during the pandemic.

That work continues with the Economic Recovery Act of 2020, signed last January, which includes the $100 million Main Street Recovery Program. “[It] will provide the financial boost businesses and nonprofits need to reopen and prepare for long-term success in the aftermath of the pandemic,” Sullivan says. “The first two products created under the Main Street Recovery Program—the Small Business Lease Grant and the Small Business Improvement Grant—specifically address one of the most pressing needs in communities around the state: bringing businesses back to street-level space and helping existing businesses that have had to make investments in improving their façades or spaces.

“These programs build on successful pilot programs the NJEDA ran prior to the pandemic that identified rent support at the beginning of a new lease and reimbursement of costs for improvements as key supports that small businesses need to succeed.”

The NJEDA started accepting applications for the Small Business Lease Grant on Oct. 20. The program aims to help businesses or nonprofits entering new or amended leases offset rent payments in those early months before profitability. The Small Business Improvement Grant reimburses businesses for facility improvements such as furniture installation or equipment additions dating back to March 9, 2020. “We anticipate a strong positive response to both of these programs and will add to them with additional resources that address other needs that small businesses and nonprofits identify,” Sullivan says.

Business owners can also lean on the local office of the state’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), run out of Rutgers-Camden and covering Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties with consulting services and educational opportunities. From the early days of the pandemic, the SBDC pivoted to virtual platforms to continue its critical assistance of small businesses and helped owners access Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).

“[Businesses] can reach out to us just so they’re aware of what’s still available out there,” says Robert Palumbo, regional director of the SBDC. “We got additional funding ourselves through the CARES Act so we were able to bring on some specialists to assist. We have a whole CARES Act team at our headquarters in Newark that is handling a lot of this. The help is there; they’re definitely not alone. But at the same time, the funds are there to help them through this, but once that money runs out they need to be helping themselves.”

He encourages small business owners to hold a re-grand opening or a post-pandemic event to remind customers they have survived this difficult ordeal and are still eager 

to serve them. He also suggests banding together with other businesses, even competitors, to share best practices, and stresses the importance of marketing and an online presence, even if the company is not selling online.

“During the pandemic a lot of consumers were turning to Amazon and other online stores. Some of them haven’t returned to the stores and that’s not good,” Palumbo says. “What’s important is that those businesses that have survived because they received funding, they’re not going to continue to survive unless people buy from them. That’s the key. The PPP and the EIDL loans and the economic development assistance they received were great because that kept them alive during the pandemic, but they’re only going to stay alive as long as they have patrons.

“It’s so important that small businesses [succeed]. That’s why the Small Business Administration has so many programs out there, because it’s the lifeblood of the economy—not the large businesses, the small businesses. That’s where the jobs are.”

Municipalities across South Jersey are doing their part to help, such as Evesham, which started Marlton Mondays to offer discounts at local stores on a traditionally slow business day. Washington Township hired its first economic business consultant, Nancy Mozzachio, in 2018, and Gattinelli says her knowledge and experience have helped put the town back on the map in terms of generating business. Her support has especially shown during the pandemic during regular Zoom meetings with local business owners, and Gattinelli has also spoken with other mayors in the area to discuss their common struggles and share ideas.

Gattinelli says a successful program that has been implemented is Shop Washington Township, in which residents can earn third-quarter tax credits for patronizing a wide range of cooperating local businesses, from insurance and home improvement services to eateries, jewelers, florists and many more.

The town also has a “Business Buzz” page on social media to announce grand openings, store anniversaries and other news, and invites local business to take part in special events throughout the year like Super Saturday, the Food Truck and Music Fest and the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.

“Keep supporting the local,” Gattinelli says. “That’s what we do here and that’s what is going to help us thrive and get through this. Before you go ahead and shop online, consider going out and taking a ride to one of the local businesses. Come support them and see what they have to offer, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what can be offered just by walking through the door.”

Palumbo echoes that sentiment and says now is even a good time for businesses to open, as long as they have a grasp on the necessary cash flow. “It’s important for these businesses starting up to have the right amount of cash,” he says. “Do your due diligence for what you need. The same goes for those who are in business now and have gotten through the pandemic. It’s important that they understand what their sales levels need to be and they do whatever they need to do to get those sales in.

“But it is a good time to start, because we are going to come out of this and we’re starting to now.”

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Author: Matt Cosentino

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