Best of 2011 - May - Businesses Still Exist in Camden

Next American City looks back on 2011’s most interesting Buzz pieces. Here, Gayle Christiansen proves that small businesses still exist in Camden, N.J.

Camden is not as welcoming as it once was, but still businesses thrive there.

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This piece originally ran here in May 2011.

The sight and smell of a scrap metal dumping ground dwarfs the isolated Twenty Horse Tavern on Camden’s southern waterfront. Yet the location does not dissuade well-dressed people from turning out on a recent Friday night to listen and to dance to a DJ and live music. Tyrone Pitts, the establishment’s Camden raised and Ivy League educated co-owner, exemplifies the Camden small business owner. When asked how he made the place a success, his answer is simple: “People needed a place like this to enjoy good drinks and music. There is nowhere in Camden like this. This place gives hope.”

San Lucas Mexican Restaurant at 2600 Federal Street

Camden makes news for its entrenched poverty, failing schools, high crime rate, and a redevelopment strategy focused on educational and medical facilities. Unfortunately, its small businesses go largely unnoticed; they are one of the city’s overlooked assets.

Successful Camden small business owners understand the city. Those who were not born, raised, educated, and / or formerly employed in the city followed family members here. Their experience in Camden provides them with local knowledge, allowing them to view the city as a business opportunity. For instance, they are attuned to the fact that while many Camden residents have limited income, they do not have fewer needs for food, medical prescriptions, clothing, or a night of dancing and music with friends and family. They recognize that the income residents do have is mostly disposable and can be spent at their businesses. Local knowledge allows Camden small business owners to see the local demand they can meet, thereby offering residents a viable alternative to a trek to the suburbs AND the City of Camden much needed sales tax revenue.

Pedestrians enjoy a sunny day along one of Camden’s main commercial corridors

In the eyes of small business owners, Camden residents are not only a customer base but also a workforce. Small business owners are well known for employing people from the neighborhood who want to work but have had limited opportunity to do so and are not dissuaded from hiring people who were formerly incarcerated. It is nearly impossible to spend any time in Camden without knowing a good person who has spent some time behind bars.

Knowing the challenges facing Camden also means these entrepreneurs enter business to give back to their city. They show their commitment to Camden by serving on the boards of local organizations, mentoring youth, providing appealing storefronts, and challenging negative street behavior. They are positive community role models. For them, owning a business is about more than making a profit and being one’s own boss.

Camden Printworks is an environmentally friendly screenprinting business that pays employees a life sustaining wage. Located at 1012 North 25th Street

Their previous Camden experience also provides them with the grit and determination all small business owners need to survive. An entrepreneurial spirit cultivated by existing in a city of obstacles allows them to navigate not only the confusing process of establishing a business but also the long-run challenge of being financially viable in the face of larger business competition, not to mention the most recent economic downturn.

Camden’s small business owners spend their days perfecting their business practices. They do not have the time to bring attention to all their good work. But this does not mean we should not celebrate them. These businesses might be small, but cumulatively they have a large impact. They transform Camden by bringing activity to its historic commercial corridors, keeping wealth in the city by providing residents with local sources of goods and services, and going above and beyond to give back to their city. Future redevelopment efforts in Camden should consider how local small business owners can have a larger role.

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