Trenton Strong: How small businesses are surviving during this pandemic

By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta. The Covid-19 pandemic was a double-whammy, destroying people’s health and businesses. Of course, Trenton was no exception, leaving the town at a standstill. More than 4,000 people contracted the virus and more than 80 lives were lost—and counting, including the passing of the City’s former Public Works Director, Luis Mollinedo. According to the State of the City Address 2020, Mayor W. Reed Gusciora stated, “This has been one of the most challenging years in Trenton’s history.” But Trenton’s story is also one of resilience and how the city of Trenton helps it’s growing business community.

By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta

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The Covid-19 pandemic was a double-whammy, destroying people’s health and businesses. Of course, Trenton was no exception, leaving the town at a standstill. More than 4,000 people contracted the virus and more than 80 lives were lost—and counting, including the passing of the City’s former Public Works Director, Luis Mollinedo. According to the State of the City Address 2020, Mayor W. Reed Gusciora stated, “This has been one of the most challenging years in Trenton’s history.” But Trenton’s story is also one of resilience and how the city of Trenton helps it’s growing business community. Since 2019, 104 businesses opened according to Gusciora—and many were during 2020. These businesses are mostly restaurants, but also include Haleemah Islamic Fashion and A Prepared Place Natural Haircare and Wellness Studio.
Pictured above : Joe Festa in front of his barber shop

While new businesses were opening, others who have been around a long time struggled to stay afloat. “It’s affected my business and everybody down here,” said Joe Festa, owner of State Barbershop, 116 W. Warren St. “This is when you found out what you’re made of.”

Festa is a man who honestly loves the business he started 60 years ago. When the pandemic first hit, he never stopped promoting his trade. He rounded up new clients by talking to people in the streets who passed by his shop. “I’m not a quitter,” he said. “I’m in heaven here.”

Pictured above: Classics Used Books store

Others inspired to keep their businesses were Eric Maywar and his wife Donna Maywar, owners of Classics Used Books, 4 W. Lafayette St. “The walking traffic really took a hit,” said Eric Maywar. “We supplemented by increasing online sales.

Early on, I saw someone do gift certificate sales to support their business, to use after the pandemic. I was expecting a couple hundred but made six thousand in gift certificate sales. We get a shelf of books and put a picture for curbside pickup. It reaches people from all over. We’ve had increased Amazon and ebay sales. Luckily, the internet is set up well to sell.”

Pictured above : The Base Camp Trenton meeting room

Innovative solutions also helped Base Camp Trenton, 247 E. Front St. Situated in a 19th century brownstone building, the co-working space provides memberships for professionals who can gather to book a conference room for meetings or presentations. Having it closed was a challenge, according to Erin Friar, community operations manager. During the height of shut down, from March to September 2020, Base Camp Trenton built up a service providing business addresses for entrepreneurs who worked from home and needed an official address in order to apply for state and federal funding.

“It gives a professional look and protects privacy,” said Friar. “That’s what we focused on over the spring.” When Base Camp Trenton re-opened last autumn, new members came onboard and things continued to grow where they left off before the lockdown.

Pictured above : Edward Forchion 

A business that didn’t stop at all during the pandemic was NJ Weedman’s Joint, 322 E. State St., owned by Edward Forchion and Debi Madaio. NJ Weedman’s Joint is a restaurant that also sells medical marijuana—right across the street from City Hall. While churches, retail stores, and hair salons were closed, medical marijuana was deemed essential. Suddenly between 150 to 200 people per day were coming to NJ Weedman.

In addition to medical marijuana sales, Forchion started using DoorDash and Uber Eats for food deliveries. “I got busier than my business has been in five years. I have a booming, thriving business. I have to attribute some of that to Covid. I wouldn’t have my delivery service.”

“I don’t think we closed one day,” Madaio added. “I know we didn’t.” Nevertheless, she feels Trenton is a hard area to survive in due to the city’s high homelessness population and crime rate. Madaio also works as a nurse, which helps subsidize the couple’s income.

But with the restaurant paying for itself now, she feels a lot of things are working in their favor. Still, she believes the federal government can do more to help in certain areas. The restaurant’s outstanding electric bill is one of the burdens hanging over her head.

When the pandemic first hit, the City of Trenton looked around for financial resources to help small businesses. “We were ahead of the state and federal stuff, knowing the federal takes so long,” said Benjamin Delisle, Director of Housing and Economic Development.

Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) created a two-million-dollar fund to give small emergency loans to businesses, with no interest, during the first few years; and up to $20K to use for payroll and rent. Unfortunately, UEZ doesn’t cover the entire city of Trenton, but Greater Trenton’s Businesses Helping Businesses was able to raise funds and provide loans to establishments of all sizes located outside the city’s UEZ area. It enabled resources to span the entire 8 square mile area of Trenton.

The City of Trenton also partnered with Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI). Over 100 people applied for loans and 30 loans went out. The others are still working through the process. And applications are still coming in. Over two million was received from Community Development Block grant.

“We helped everyone who looked for help,” said Delisle. “Some didn’t need money right away, but as the pandemic lingered, needed help later on.”

The City of Trenton worked hard to promote outdoor dining. Parklets were set up, taking away parking spaces to add room for tables and chairs. Of course, during winter outdoor dining isn’t much of a thing anymore. But for those who don’t mind the cold, outdoor dining is permitted after 10 p.m., unlike indoor dining where the curfew is 10 p.m.

Take-out is another option Delisle feels helped the restaurants. “For the most part, businesses are open,” he said. “It’s great we have apps and DoorDash delivery services.”

For the remainder of the pandemic, however long that may be, Delisle remains positive and is excited about the many businesses that opened during 2019 and 2020. “They’re going to make things happen,” he said. “Tough inner-city businesses are able to adapt and survive.”

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