CAMDEN, NJ — Four years ago when AJ Riggs first opened The Camden Store, a retail space that sells mementos with local pride, she said the business climate wasn’t what it is now.
Mainstays like Corinne's and Donkey’s Place were thriving sure, she said, but other businesses, mainly barbershops and small eateries, were simply concerned with getting their footing and trying to establish longevity in the Haddon Avenue corridor.
“There’s more of a sense of purpose now,” Riggs of the Haddon Avenue Business Association (HABA), told TAPinto Camden. “But we’re still working on it. Now it’s about bringing businesses together to help leverage some of the things they can work together on; [for instance] helping small businesses collaborate with the larger corporations.”
With that and other goals in mind, business owners in Camden gathered at HABA’s first of four quarterly networking events Tuesday night — with help of the Parkside Business and Community in Partnership (PBCIP). The event, under a Women’s History Month theme, was held at a new arts' pavilion on the 1300 block of Haddon Avenue.
We want to “build a synergy of positive businesses trying to scale and move forward,” said Rashaan Hornsby, HABA chair and owner of Camden’s Royal Paper Company. “In gathering owners from the area we can ask, ‘What do you think is missing from Camden?’
As far as Riggs is concerned a grocery store, cafés, bookstores, and generally mom-and-pop shops are needed.
“What's unfortunate is that so many people are used to leaving the city for services that we have here, or should be fighting to get,” said Riggs, who came to Camden from New York City. “[Customers] don’t trust the new businesses sometimes because they assume they’ll be around for two years and then go out of business. So it’s about getting Camden to support Camden.”
Music played from speakers as business owners, city officials and local civic leaders enjoyed a buffet courtesy of Corinne's Place.
Attendees mingled and exchanged business cards in a hall at the rear of the building amid black and white checkerboard tables.
“As a business community it’s good to have this kind of face time,” said Nichelle Pace, vice president of the Camden Business Association (CBA). “It’s also good to gather to celebrate the milestones these businesses — that are so crucial to the city — have had."
The CBA will soon announce details on a new portal expected to streamline the process for businesses seeking more opportunities in Camden. Data from the online hub will also be the first of its kind in the city — aiming to link small businesses to the larger like Subaru, ResinTech and American Water.
At the mic, Bridget Phifer, executive director of PBCIP, reminded everyone about the importance of connections.
“If you know anyone with an idea, or who's already got a business in their basement or in the bedroom of their home, and they want to [expand to] Haddon Avenue...please direct them to me,” she said. "We are looking for innovative people who can bring some real vibrancy to this community.”
Micro-businesses and awards
Toward the end of the night, Rosemari Hicks, recent appointee by the governor to the New Jersey Economic Development Board, spoke of a new initiative for businesses in the area.
“I got in front of the governor, as did Nichelle [Pace] and other business owners, to ask the NJEDA to carve out a program that would address and provide financial support to micro-business owners,” she said. “And as of December, they approved a pilot to invest $1 million...in loan grants or loan guarantees to micro-businesses.”
Hicks said the program adds up to a loan of up to $50,000 per applicant, for businesses between 0-5 years.
She said it was important for a business to “have everything in order” for when these types of opportunities arise — in order to take full advantage.
HABA finished the event by awarding the following with Business Woman of Excellence Awards: Sister Chabree Muhammad, director of Muhammad’s University of Islam 20 and M.E.L. Childcare Center Inc, as well as Margarita Santiago and Ana Fernandez of STARS Adult Medical Day Care Center.
It also highlighted Corinne Powers of Corinne’s Place and Free Williams of Hair Mob Studio with certificates and trophies.
The businesses were the longest standing and newest in the room, respectively.
“It’s important to never forget where you came from when you come up,” Powers, who has had her restaurant in the city for over 30 years, said to applause.
Williams, in tears, said she came to Camden from Philadelphia to open her salon roughly two years ago and has been “embraced with open arms.”