Hudson County’s unemployment rate of 9.1 percent is the highest in two decades, according to County Executive Tom DeGise, but it’s still lower than the statewide rate of 10.1 percent. With a new year underway, a new governor in Trenton committed to job creation, and a bit of guile and innovation from business owners and local professionals, things are looking up.
Elizabeth Spinelli, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Corporation, has seen the results of unique efforts by business owners throughout Hudson County.
“A lot of small businesses are digging their heels in,” said Spinelli. “They’re saying we’re going to try it, we’re going to make it.” Spinelli said that she sees businesses doing a lot of creative things to find opportunities and stay in business, such as restaurants lowering their prices or developing specials.
“Any business worth their salt is re-evaluating their business plan to find out how to keep business coming in,” said Spinelli. “[They’re] learning how to create foot traffic and buzz that’s going to drive business.”
“A lot of small businesses are digging their heels in,” she said. “They’re saying we’re going to try it, we’re going to make it.” – Elizabeth Spinelli
Spinelli said many of the businesses coming in for loans need the money because although they are successful, they need the capital to meet payrolls or rent.
Along with each dollar loaned comes a promise of new jobs for the community. For every $35,000 lent through their program, a job must be created.
“More often than not, we get more jobs for the dollar than we ask for,” she said, adding that the most important thing the community is facing right now is job creation and job retention. “Our mission is job creation for low and moderate income individuals,” said Spinelli. “Everything we do focuses back to job creation, because there’s an individual out there right now pounding the pavement for work.”
New economy, old school strategies
Local professionals have found new ways to make money after leaving the financial sector or another downsized industry, and some have changed direction completely.
Rich Mendez opened an insurance agency as a young man. Years later, when the insurance industry plummeted, Mendez was able to switch gears and stay afloat as an entrepreneur by opening Post Net, a printing and shipping center on Grove Street in Jersey City.
Now in his seventh year of business, Mendez is forging ahead while other businesses around him are closing. “I cannot complain,” said Mendez. “I’ve had two good years in a row.”
Mendez owns the location where his business is housed. He said most rents are too high to keep spaces occupied on Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City and he is aware of at least three stores that are about to go out of business. He said some business owners don’t have the experience to stay afloat.
Mendez points out that while other franchisees of Post Net, UPS and similar stores are closing, he stills sees approximately 90 customers in his store per day.
“I have a strong will and I don’t spend more than I make,” said Mendez. “When I have to cut back, I cut back.”
Carol and Bill Haight own Big Drum Art and Framing in the Powerhouse District of Jersey City. They’ve also learned that keeping expenses under control is the key to withstanding economic woes.
Two years ago, they moved their framing store from a major mall to its new location surrounded by many new artist loft/residences. The Haights say they have better control of expenses in the current location, with a more reasonable rent than large commercial spaces and astronomically lower than their previous location.
So far, the new year is off to a good start. “We’re hanging in there,” said Carol Haight. “We have a loyal customer base and we’re paying the bills.”
Bill Haight, who has a master’s degree in financial management, stays on top of his bills by checking for mistakes, a small task but one that tends to add up. He said while their customer count is down in the new location, the average sale of $50 per sale at their former location is now up to $200 in the new store.
The Haights said most of their customers have not been directly affected by layoffs, but they have seen the effects of the economy weighing on everyone. “Everyone is looking for a sale or discount,” said Carol Haight.
To that end, they offer monthly sales and a special 25 percent discount to those who sign up for the email list on their website. The decision to use the website as a central business component was launched last year and they said many new customers are coming in from the web.
In search of jobs
The Hudson County Economic Development Center (HCEDC) recently extended a loan to Cosi franchisees with locations in downtown Jersey City who wanted to expand into Secaucus. As a result of the microloan, a new location is now open and will create up to 30 jobs.
Spinelli said that HCEDC loans also helped create 60 jobs at a hotel that went up in Harrison and will generate as many as 300 to 500 jobs for Hudson County residents at a cold cut and hot dog processing company that is preparing to transfer from the Bronx.
For the unemployed and underemployed, Hudson County libraries continue to be a resource center. The Secaucus Public Library planned a SCORE class for starting and managing your own business to be held in March. And in addition to Internet access and career books, many libraries are also offering special workshops.
The Hoboken Public Library hosts a series of five different programs focused on job searching that are rotated and presented twice a month.
Matthew Latham, reference librarian and adult program coordinator, said that many people attending the programs have recently been laid off from long-term jobs. In his workshops, he encourages job seekers to do as much networking (online and offline) as possible. “In this climate where there’s so much competition, it’s about getting yourself visible,” said Latham. “If you can meet people and get your name out there, that’s going to the best possible thing for you.”
Andrew Kemp, a program manager for the Urban League of Hudson County, which provides employment and training assistance to Hudson County residents, said it has been a rough few months for job seekers. “Many of them have experience, but it’s in a field that is dead or dying,” he said.
Kemp emphasized the importance of learning new skills for both the unemployed and employed, especially in up-and-coming career fields such as health aides and “green” or environment-friendly jobs.
Though frustration is mounting among job seekers, Kemp urges all of his clients to maintain a positive attitude. “We have to keep going,” he said. “We cannot stop; somewhere along the line if you keep it up, someone’s going to hire you.”
State takes action
A statement released by the governor’s office last month said the business climate in New Jersey ranks dead last in the nation, and that Gov. Christopher Christie intends to fulfill his campaign promise to encourage investment and expansion of small businesses.
He recently unveiled a new plan that includes capping employer tax rate increases required under current law, and adjusting unemployment benefits.
At a recent discussion with business leaders, Christie said he knows it’s not an easy time to be a business person in the state and he is trying to give businesses more money for them to hire more people.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.