Atlantic County isn’t known for its small businesses or entrepreneurs. But in between the casinos and the imminent “opportunity zones” that are the latest hope for kickstarting the area’s still-troubled economy, small business owners are working together to create new services and products.
Photographer Kelly Lentz earlier this year started taking pictures of Brigantine businesses and sharing them on Facebook and Instagram under the theme “Spotlight on Local.” Lentz started off wanting to photograph the businesses to show them the value of hiring a professional. But she found she was creating new relationships. Beyond just spreading the word of each other’s business, the project brought Lentz into contact with other business owners who had a similar goal: to bring more people to shop or use Brigantine services. Now, Lentz and others she has met through the project, through the Brigantine Chamber of Commerce or the town’s farmers market, are brainstorming about events they could organize to draw more visitors and shoppers.
The fanfare this year surrounding the reopening of two closed casinos in Atlantic City shows that much of the region’s focus is still on the gaming economy that dominated employment for the last four decades. Although small businesses are key to diversifying the economy, and local politicians love to pull out the small-business-endorsement card during campaign seasons, not a lot has been done by county officials to support small business development. The county’s economic action plan, penned by Texas-based economists almost three years ago, said Atlantic County needed a maker’s space where entrepreneurs could share tools, a co-working space where small businesses could work, meet and network, and a seed incubator to help fund and support new businesses. All these things would “foster a strong entrepreneurial culture” by sparking “innovation and creativity,” the economists said.
None of those recommendations have been implemented by the county. But over in Hammonton, a group of tradesmen, inventors, artists and other makers are building their own maker space, named Warehouse 15. A Brigantine office building is being refitted as a co-working space. The team behind Atlantic City’s Tennessee Avenue redevelopment are considering adding co-working space above some of their new store fronts. In Ventnor, a group of businesses came together at the end of last year to form the Ventnor Business Association, which runs events and now an education series. Other groups are growing online or on Facebook. Lentz is a member of the Speakeasy, a Facebook group for photographers from South Jersey and Philadelphia, who help each other out and share leads. “It’s like our own little chamber,” Lentz said, noting that the support is particularly helpful for professionals that tend to work from home and by themselves.
There is still no seed incubator, but local business owners are taking advantage of some quirks of the Atlantic County economy that provide financial and entrepreneurial support. Figures from the last census shows that Atlantic County has a disproportionately large number of government-sector employees and a disproportionately small number of self-employed business owners. But the numbers don’t reflect the complexity of the local entrepreneur sector. Many of the area’s small businesses are owned by municipal firefighters, or backed by investment from a government-worker’s pension, or supported by the safety net of a government-employee spouse’s health benefits.
At the same time as some are tapping their own or their spouse’s government job for support, others are networking with Atlantic County transplants who have brought experience and skills from outside of the area. The proximity to the beach and the Pinelands seems to appeal to a certain kind of young self-starter, or pull in a breed of innovators who have had success elsewhere and want to move here for the lifestyle. Esther Casale of Brigantine’s Casale al Mare previously lived in Bucks County, PA., like Lentz. She had owned a store in Peddlers Village (like Historic Smithville, but bigger) before moving to Brigantine. When she moved, she brought her retail experience, entrepreneurial knowledge and a willingness to try new things and work with other business owners in the area. Casale al Mare’s windows on the Atlantic Brigantine Blvd are filled with posters showcasing events and activities at other businesses around the town. Casale can sometimes be found behind a makeshift mini-kitchen, performing a cooking demo outside other stores. And her experience means she has knowledge to share with other business owners starting up in the area.
“Just because you have a store and you have an open door, it doesn’t mean you have a business,” Casale said. “It’s your job to get them in the store…you have to do something. It’s not the fact that there’s no business here: there is.”
Lentz, who would love to have a storefront for her photography business, is talking with fine artist Popo Flanigan about how to support a gallery business. Under the name Gallery 88, the duo are already selling photos and art at the Brigantine Farmers Market.
On the other side of the Absecon Inlet, Mark Ganter, the co-owner of Atlantic City’s Little Water Distillery, is constantly thinking about how to team up with other like-minded businesses for cross promotions that also create something new in the area. Little Water has run numerous collaborations with other local businesses, using its White Cap whisky, Liberty rum and 48 Blocks vodka either as part of a cross-marketing arrangement or to create special, one-off products. Ventnor restaurant Cardinal Bistro has desserts on its menu that use Little Water products. The Pinelands Brewing Company made a special beer aged in barrels from Little Water. And the distillery is frequently teaming up with local bars for deals and promotions that showcase both the venue and Little Water’s products.
— Little Water (@littlewaterdist) May 12, 2017
Ganter said collaborating works best when the other business is similarly innovative. “There has to be a spirit of innovation and that sense that the pie’s bigger (if we work together) as opposed to, we already have a slice, we don’t care about growing yours,” he said. “The sense of innovation is what makes them work.” This is true of distillery partners such as chocolate-maker MADE. The distillery doesn’t sell MADE’s finished products commercially, but it is working with their byproducts to create an innovative collaborative product line as well as create new cocktail recipes. The distillery is also working on other collaborations with a cigar company and a smoked fish company to create or enhance products.
It is not the case that the county is focused on attracting and retaining big business, said Lauren Moore, executive director of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance, the development authority that was formed in the wake of the Texas economists’ report. “We want to grow the small businesses, we want to retain them so that they don’t leave or close up, and we want to expand them,” he said. But the ACEA has limited resources, while other organizations such as the Small Business Development Center already provide local small business support. Moore admits his work since joining a year ago has been focused on building out the area’s aviation industry (the area around the Atlantic City airport is set to be an opportunity zone) and esports, a gaming-industry spinoff of sorts. The ACEA is thinking of hiring someone to support small business development, though. “We’ve got to continue to look for opportunities to diversify our economy,” Moore said.