Stephen Chen came in to open his Yogurt Plus on Plaza Road last Thursday morning to find that his next door neighbor had closed down—a common occurrence lately in the two block radius of his Radburn store.
The darkened lights next to his shop join a chorus of empty storefronts around the borough, which three months ago prompted Fair Lawn to reactivate an Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that has long been—and still is—left unfunded.
“It’s very scary,” Chen said, pointing to a paper sign in the window of OXXO Care Cleaner’s, the only notice given of its decision to shut its doors. The closings of other businesses, including the Radburn Deli, Picnic, and the Track Side Grille, have taken a toll on business in the area, he says. The fewer storefronts, the less foot traffic and opportunity for new customers.
Plus, the sinking thought: “Maybe you’re the next one.”
Such struggles led Fair Lawn then Deputy Mayor John Cosgrove to push the council to reconstitute the EDC three months ago, after a “dormant” period following a vote by the Borough Council in early 2011 not to fund the corporation.
“I don’t think that Fair Lawn can sit on the sidelines in this economic climate and watch businesses leave or not try to attract new businesses,” Cosgrove said.
The EDC had previously been active, with the goal of financing studies of business districts in town to determine where and how Fair Lawn’s business climate could be improved.
Its biggest success, chairman Steven Kiel says, was commissioning a 2007 study of the Industrial Park along the 208 corridor that led to zoning and parking recommendations, as well as strategies for upgrading industrial buildings. The $49,000 study was paid for through grants from Bergen County and the Borough of Glen Rock, as well as by money raised privately by the EDC.
In 2012, Patch reported that seven of Fair Lawn’s top 10 taxpayers inhabited the corridor.
The council gave approval for the EDC to become active once more in exploring ways to “recruit and retain” Fair Lawn businesses, but did not approve any funding.
“We still don’t have funding,” said Kiel. “We’re trying to explore other areas right now so we can get it.”
The corporation has previously been financed by organizations like the Broadway and River Road Improvement Corporations, Chamber of Commerce, and Radburn Association, as well as by private businesses. But private money could not support the kind of study that the EDC pursued with the Industrial Park, and state and county grants have no longer been available.
“Everybody wasn’t willing to go on forever putting in their own money,” member Stuart Herrmann said.
The Broadway and River Road Improvement Corporations already exist to advocate for businesses in those districts, but there is currently no comparable promoter for other commercial districts in the borough.
“There are other areas, other sections of Fair Lawn that have businesses that don’t have BIC and RIC that would benefit from some kind of program,” Kiel said.
One area of focus was initially Radburn, where so many of the recent store closings have occured. But the corporation has never been able to secure funding for a large scale evaluation of the section.
“The original focus of the EDC was to try to get a study of the area in Radburn. It kind of got sidetracked a little bit,” Hermann told Patch.
“We never really got a chance to do it because we had other projects that came up that needed help right away, and we were only a volunteer board,” he added. “We couldn’t get funding from the town to move forward.”
The EDC has for years spoken to NJ Transit to pursue grants to fund potential projects, Kiel says, but has so far been unsuccessful. “The Radburn train station is one of the busiest stations on the Bergen line, so you would think NJ Transit would have some kind of interest in helping us there,” Kiel said.
It has also reached out to the county, which previously funded a low interest loan program through a $125,000 grant. The county also distributed, through the EDC, grants to small businesses for sign and awning improvements.
These kinds of programs, Radburn storeowners say, would help support business in the current climate.
“I know some of the other storeowners around here would like to able to put money into their businesses and to grow them from that point, but money isn’t available,” said Mitch Palin, a chamber of commerce vice president and owner of Minuteman Press on Fair Lawn Avenue. “The banks have not been generous with small business owners.”
He said assistance in accessing loans would be particularly helpful in the present economic climate, as while banks have tightened their lending many small businesses also have tighter balance sheets to present to loan officers.
“You’re kind of in a Catch-22 situation.”
Chen added that lighting and signs to help increase visibility would bring in new foot traffic and interest in his section of town, but that such projects are out of reach for individual business owners.
The reactivated EDC is still in its preliminary stages, exploring both strategy and ways to secure funding, and will in its next phases reach out to business owners and present a plan to the council.
But there is no indication yet when funding may be forthcoming to revive programs previously offered by the corporation, even as businesses owners lookout for the financial assistance and advocacy they say would help them survive through tough times.
“We’re looking to see what we can do with limited resources, looking to see what can be done, and we’re going pick a cause and we’re going to work towards it,” Herrmann said. “And as we do that we’ll hopefully be able to get some people to put money towards whatever we think we need to do.”