By Ron Leir
BELLEVILLE – The doors to the Township Chambers opened promptly at 9 a.m. last Thursday and in they came.
Within the first 15 minutes, about a dozen business people from Belleville streamed through.
What was the buzz? Was the Township offering tax breaks? Low interest loans?
Nope. It was a million dollar giveaway.
But hold on. Lest you think the Belleville treasurer has money to burn, you’d better hear a fuller explanation from Mayor Ray Kimble and the Township Council who, earlier this month, heralded a township “economic stimulus plan” which, they said, “will assist Belleville businesses in developing new customers while rewarding existing customers in the first cross-promotional event in the history of our Township.”
That means that the Township will be helping businesses and businesses will be helping each other.
To that end, the Township will be printing more than one million “Belleville Bucs” – that is, coupons “designed to look like a dollar bill” with the imprint of the Township’s public school mascot, “The Buccaneer,” on the front of each “bill.”
On the flip side of each “Buc” will be the names of Belleville businesses – categorized generically as “food,” “service” and “merchandise” – who register for the program.
Here’s how the “cross-promoting” will work: Each of the participating businesses will pledge to distribute the Belleville Buc coupon – redeemable for $1 off a $10 purchase or 10% off total purchase (minimum of $10) – to up to two other business owners from their shop or office.
As an example (as explained by a Township flier), “a restaurant business enrolled in the program may distribute to their customers a $1 off Buc from an area car wash or clothing store.”
“We … hope that together we can all help our businesses grow and prosper while our residents benefit from the promotional savings,” the Township flier says.
The concept is the brainchild of Interim Township Manager Kevin Esposito.
“I was speaking Councilwoman (Marie Strumolo) Burke on a Sunday and she was telling me she’d been at a local pizzeria restaurant that Friday night and their business was suffering,” Esposito recalled.
To try and get more customers, Esposito said, businesses take out long-term ads in weeklies and/or trade journals – sometimes at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000 a year and that’s hardly chicken feed for a small concern to put out.
After spending the night pondering the plight of the area’s shops and offices still fighting to rise above the national recession, “I thought of this plan,” Esposito said.
To get locals on board, Esposito said he – with help from Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli – visited some 300 businesses and talked up the plan with the owners. A number of those owners stopped at the Municipal Building last Thursday for the first day of registration.
Among them were Peter Poz, who has run the Belleville Hand Car Wash on Washington Ave. for the past decade and who is betting that the stimulus program will help him grow new business; and Kevin Horan, proprietor of Finish Line, a Rutgers St. graphics company, also hoping to increase his volume.
Leslea Piscatowski, who, with her mother, Pat Clark, has operated Uptown Dance Studio on Union Ave. for two decades, calls the Buc plan “a great idea – it’s nice that the town is doing something for local business and I wanted to get involved. And I like the idea of businesses supporting each other.”
And Nelson Arce, a self-employed Franklin St. accountant, said he was “glad to see that Belleville is trying to help small business owners. … It’s a start in the right direction and if it works, other towns may look to implement it as well.”
Arce, who serves as president of the Suburban Essex Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in Belleville, Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, said that many regional retail and commercial firms are still “struggling” these days. “Thank God I have a service business – that keeps my overhead low; I’ve seen a lot of Belleville businesses – mostly restaurants – go under because they have a lot of overhead, and they’re dealing with perishable goods plus high rent – but I’ve also noticed a lot of new businesses opening up. I think in the long run, it’ll all work out.”
One local business that’s expanding is The Motorcycle Mall, which has operated in Belleville since 1977. It held a grand opening for its new location at 655 Washington Ave. this past Saturday.
Back at the Municipal Building, Esposito is holding up on printing those Belleville Bucs for the moment. “Let’s give it a few weeks and see what kind of response we get. I’d like to get 150 as a good starting off point and go from there,” he said.
By the end of the day, “just under 40” Belleville business owners had signed up for the stimulus program, Esposito reported.
As a further incentive, the Township plans to schedule a seminar, “Secrets of My Success,” at the Belleville Public Library where successful Belleville business people will be invited “to share some of their strategies for success with our Belleville business owners,” the Township flier noted.
Additionally, Esposito said he’s conferring with Essex County Freeholder Brandon Gill on “ways we can improve our downtown business district” and he’s pushing for Belleville to host a “Business Development Seminar” that will outline how business owners can improve their building facades and how they can apply for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
In the meantime, Esposito said, the Township will be mailing notices to those business owners who didn’t show up last Thursday that they can contact his office at the Municipal Building to secure a registration form.
“I want to get out the message that Belleville is business- friendly,” he said.