Economic development, particularly in lower-income communities, is frequently fraught with challenges that quickly connect to a complex set of social issues. Such was the case during a recent site visit to the South Ward of Newark, where LOA is developing an economic development strategy for the Bergen-Lyons-Clinton (BLC) Partnership, so named for the three principle streets where our efforts will be focused. It should come as no surprise that during focus groups with residents, as well as conversations with city officials, merchants and anchor institutions, the conversation quickly turned to public safety concerns, high rates of unemployment, drugs, homelessness and prostitution. One might assume these issues are beyond the scope of an economic development and small business strategy, but they clearly relate to the quality of the business environment and the ability of local businesses to survive and thrive under challenging conditions. While physical improvements to public realm, a mainstay of many corridor strategies, are important, they are wholly insufficient in this context.

The work is being funded in part by RWJ Barnabus, a regional health care service provider and operator of Beth Israel Hospital, located in the South Ward. The hospital is an anchor with a deep interest in addressing the holistic needs of the local community. We were thrilled to use this planning opportunity to explore how RWJ, together with LISC Newark, can marshal resources and advance advocacy for improvements that go beyond the look and feel of the corridor.

In many ways, our mission was one of identifying assets – many yet untapped – that could be put towards the complex challenges at hand. Early discoveries included a local church with surplus land on the main corridor and a desire to put it to work in service of community youth; LISC, a community development intermediary with deep expertise in affordable housing development and finance; Beth Israel, a hospital with a keen interest in a deeper level of community engagement; property owners willing to engage the BLC Partnership in discussions about development plans; and a public administration with a desire to see economic development activity spread more evenly across the City. These were all signs of starting points, opportunities to develop a comprehensive asset driven community development strategy that leans heavily on a set of place-based interests and resources, all unique to this particular neighborhood at this particular point in time.

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These conversations were merely a starting point. As our work progresses, we look forward to a deeper exploration of solutions that get at the root of the challenges facing small businesses and the communities they serve.