Rosemari Hicks, who runs CoWork Street in Camden City, was appointed to the state Economic Development Authority in November. The city’s smallest businesses say she’s got their interests in mind.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 15, 2020
On January 16, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) convenes for the first time in 2020.
And for the first time ever, Rosemari Hicks, the entrepreneur behind Camden City’s CoWork Street coworking space, will be joining the EDA board as an alternate public member.
“I was surprised when they reached out, and even more surprised when they added me to the board,” Hicks said.
“I welcome the opportunity,” she said. “The governor has been talking about a fair and stronger economy that works for everybody in New Jersey, and I think this is a step.”
Hicks is keenly aware of the battering the EDA has taken over its lucrative tax incentive programs, particularly those intended to jumpstart the Camden economy. But she’s also aware of her ability to bring a different voice and perspective to the table, and thinks she can focus its energies on the needs of the smallest entrepreneurs in the state.
“When you have different voices of people on boards like this, we can effectively represent the communities and businesses that EDA has been designed to serve,” Hicks said. “It’s different voices heard at different levels of the spectrum. I look at it as a wonderful opportunity to see what happens.”
Dania Ceruti, who runs 360 Marketing & PR out of CoWork Street, said Hicks “is definitely a true advocate for microbusiness,” a term that arose from their conversations about being “smaller than small” business owners.
“Rosemari said, ‘I like micro, we’re going to start using that,’” Ceruti said.
When Ceruti heard about the NJ Ignite program, an EDA initiative that pays rent for start-ups housed in coworking spaces and incubators, she was frustrated that only technology and life science companies were eligible to apply. Hicks encouraged her to try anyway, and sent follow-up messages to see if anything could be done on her behalf.
“It didn’t work out,” Ceruti said.
“So [Hicks] said, ‘Are you willing to go to Trenton and have this meeting with the NJ EDA?’”
Hicks started going to EDA meetings, approaching “anyone who would listen about the needs of microbusinesses and how some of the existing programs inadvertently sort of leave us out,” she said.
“It was a heavy lift in order to effectively participate; just to navigate and understand the process,” Hicks said.
“What people really need are workshops, information sessions, and training.”
On December 15, Hicks hosted EDA staff at CoWork Street in the hopes of connecting them with Camden small businesses that might be eligible for its incentive programs. About 35 Camden microbusinesses attended.
“I believe in meeting people where they are and not where you think they should be,” Hicks said. “The fact that [EDA] were in the city, that 30-plus microbusinesses showed up to have that conversation, is showing that there’s enough there.”
Three days after the event, the agency rolled out a pilot loan program directly focused on microbusinesses. It provides up to $50,000 for equipment purchases or working capital, and is open to early-stage as well as pre-launch companies.
The program will operate for three years, or until its $1 million allocation is exhausted. The smallest businesses particularly could benefit from that operating capital because their owners are “wearing an awful lot of hats,” and the extra cash can help them focus on their core needs, Hicks said.
“You need an infusion of operating cash to make sure things are happening; to be able to breathe,” she said.
Hicks is helping several of the attendees of her event apply for loans through the program, and continues to advocate for microbusinesses through traditional lending institutions.
She’s already made inroads with the South Jersey Federal Credit Union, and hopes to create similar opportunities at the larger commercial banks that operate in Camden.
Asked how she’s making these connections, Hicks simply chalks it up to shoe leather and sweat equity.
“We have the strength and the experiences of professional services that can lead some of these things, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be this big massive production; I think we lose the good for the perfect.
“We want long-term relationships and sustainability, where people are partnering and they’re involved with the growth of the company and the service,” Hicks said. “Let’s have conversations with people who are serious about partnering and coordinating, and let’s do it on a micro level.”
That’s the approach that 360 Marketing took in landing a business services contract with New Jersey American Water, a deal that Hicks described as beginning “at the granular level.” Business owners just want the opportunity to start small with their clients and grow those relationships, she said.
“We just want real business opportunities from them,” Ceruti said. “We spent the last four years building relationships, showing that we can do the work and that we’re here for the long haul.
“We have the manpower, we have the ability,” she said. “Give us a chance to see what we can really do.”
Other than NJ American Water, Ceruti said she’s hard-pressed to name major employers who’ve come to Camden through EDA incentive programs and who extend opportunities for meaningful work to its residents.
“It’s frustrating to be here and to have people constantly give us lip service,” she said.
“There’s a lot of companies who say, ‘We want to work with you; we want to come to Camden.’ That has not happened.
“We want to start holding these businesses accountable who have hundreds of millions of dollars,” Ceruti said. “They have to do the real work and work with these businesses in Camden, period.”
Fredric Byarm of Invincible City Farms has seen another unintended consequence of the EDA incentives—namely, the speculative inflation of Camden real estate prices that are keeping his business from getting off the ground.
Invincible City Farms would create “an urban agricultural complex that grows food that people within the food deserts can buy,” Byarm said. He’s got a plan for funding the project as a brownfield redevelopment and the promise of some operating capital once a site is secured. What he doesn’t have is the space to make it happen.
“Right now, the stumbling block for us is a site,” Byarm said. “That’s really the hurdle we’ve not been able to get over.”
To be classified as a farm, New Jersey requires food growers to control at least 5 acres of land. That designation is important because the 16 percent of Camden residents who receive state and federal food benefits like SNAP and WIC would be able to redeem them at Invincible City.
But only a handful of 5-acre properties are presently on the market, and their owners are only interested in talking with buyers who have secured EDA incentives.
“Sellers want a piece of the millions of dollars in incentives,” Byarm said. “They will only sell to a company with Grow NJ incentives, and they’ve marked their property up.
“I’ve gone through the process of having real estate agents tell it back to me: if I’m not going for the Grow incentives, their client’s not interested in me because I don’t have the right profile,” he said.
“This is a program which should be supporting a business like mine, and it’s become a hurdle that we’ve had to climb because the Grow incentives have inflated those property values,” Byarm said.
Even as he’s seen some prices reduced from their heights at the peak of the Grow NJ incentives, they are still prohibitive to any buyers other than large corporations.
“I’ve seen properties that have come down from $9 to $3 million, but it’s still an abandoned lot,” Byarm said. “For some people that’s great, but if you were never this multinational company, how were you ever going to afford that price tag? And if you are, you never have to pay that number because you get the incentives.”
Programs like Grow NJ recruit businesses to relocate to Camden, but they don’t help retain and grow its existing economic base, Byarm said. He’s frustrated that there hasn’t been greater work to “stimulate the companies that are already here.
“Headlines talk about the power brokers, the heads of corporations, major political figures, and that’s the concept a lot of people have of what is going on in Camden,” he said. “But in Camden, there’s real, living, breathing, working-to-make-a-living-every-day people, and we’re not in the headlines.
“We’re not what people are talking about,” Byarm said. “The EDA might have been great for Subaru, but that has no impact on the people who are living and working and running businesses in Camden.”
Byarm is hopeful that Hicks’ appointment will shed greater light on the needs of Camden’s entrepreneurs who are struggling.
If it results in new incentive programs that are geared more towards current Camden residents, he believes it will benefit the surrounding region as well.
“Once you get south of Trenton, I think there’s a definite gap in the opportunities for development that you see farther north,” he said.
“We’re still in the Philadelphia marketplace, and there’s nothing of our size in South Jersey, so us having greater opportunities means a lot for the region, not just the city,” Byarm said.
“That’s the lens through which I view Rosemari’s appointment,” he said. “Rosemari will bring to the table her knowledge of the people who live in the community and work in the community, and those things will have a seat at the table with Rosemari.”
Ceruti said she believes Hicks can have an impact because “she is not a yes-person by any stretch of the imagination.
“She likes to ask hard questions to get information for people, and fight back for it,” Ceruti said. “Maybe having someone from Camden on the board can draw people down to South Jersey, and [help them] understand that Camden is really trying to turn this corner. Maybe they can have something in place for us, and we can all work together.
“There’s a lot of microbusinesses, good ones, in Camden, who are struggling at getting their footing,” she said. “We’re trying to talk about our struggles and how we can move forward to really survive.”
Hicks said she’s certain Camden needed the assistance of the EDA incentive programs while conceding that things “could have been done differently.”
Nonetheless, she doesn’t think the agency should have to choose between large-scale job creation and supporting microbusinesses.
The bridge she’s hoping to build is one of communication.
“It’s just talking on the granular level about how we get it done,” she said; “talking with the people that you’re trying to impact, and understanding that you came into a community where there needed to be a little more heavy lifting.
“There’s enough folks out there who want to do the right thing, and who have the bandwidth to do the right thing,” Hicks said. “Utilize us; we’re here; talk to us.”
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