Gayle Chirtiansen, left, is one of six members of the CoLaborative Thesis Group. All six theses examine New Strategies for an Old Crisis: Regenerating Local Economies, each in a different American City.
Gayle Christiansen defended her thesis, Makin’ a Way Where There is No Way: Forging Small Business Connections in Camden, New Jersey on Friday, April 23rd. At nine in the morning the room was packed with attendees from the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and also former coworkers from Camden.
In her presentation, Christiansen used vibrant video (available for watching at the bottom of this article) and audio clips to introduce Camden, New Jersey and tell thestories of its small businesses, from shoe stores to restaurants and daycare providers. She posed a key paradox about development in the city: while state funded revitalization efforts focused on waterfront tourism and educational and medical institution expansion have yet to benefit most city residents, small business owners have been working to create opportunities in the most under-served neighborhoods of Camden.
Through her own connection to the city as a former middle school Science teacher in Camden, and persistent visits to neighborhood businesses, Christiansen made contact with sixteen small business owners throughout Camden. In her interviews, she found several important themes:
— Camden roots: Many of these business owners had longtime connections to Camden, either having grown up there or lived there for many years.
— Opportunity: Camden small business owners see opportunity in the city where others do not. In particular, small business owners see disposable income, a great labor force, valuable location and niche demands.
— Sustainability: Many business owners start small and slowly expand, building on small successes.
— Giving back: Gayle cited a study that showed that in Boston 71.4% of the 350 fastest African American business owners with between ten to one hundred employees went into business with the intention to serve the community. In Camden, many business owners took advantage of their entrepreneurial role to give back in a number of ways, including opening an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and acting as mentors to neighborhood youth.
Gayle then took these interviews a step further and highlighted a number of small business disconnects, including:
— Economic recession: The economic downturn is exacerbating existing struggles of small businesses.
— Perception of the City: Even though small businesses see opportunity in their neighborhoods, the city sees these places in anegative light, as dangerous, marginalized, and ‘unknown’ places.
— Economic Development Organizations: The organizations that should be providing these small businesses with services and support are often disconnected from them, and instead serve as gatekeepers in practice. This could be due to perception of business by economic development organizations, or outreach methods that are not culturally competent.
— Financial Resources: Businesses need consistent financing in the form of accessible loans, credit and financing.
— Government Process: The permitting process is difficult to navigate and alienating.
Gayle highlighted three major recommendations for Camden government and service providers to forge connections with small businesses:
1. Connect small businesses with economic development organizations and city government: By including these businesses in redevelopment plans, streamlining city processes, and centralizing business support information.
2. Connect small business with rooted institutions: Small businesses can partner with Rutgers students as well as encourage the growth of complimentary small businesses.
3. Connect small business with youth: Youth are Camden’s future entrepreneurs! Entrepreneurial after school programs, summer placement programs and apprenticeships can help youth to develop business skills early.
The session concluded with thought-provoking discussion, particularly about the role of small businesses in transforming disadvantaged communities, how to make the case to city government around including small business in economic development strategy, and how to navigate the line between an insider/outsider role as a planner.
Article by Stefanie Ritoper. Photo by Danielle Martin.