The meet and greet, which brought together various businesspeople, was held at the Otaiko Lounge. The first Chamber event since the pizza contest announcement in June, it amounts to the after-summer kickoff of a new season of Chamber events.
Virga said the Chamber may revamp some of its activities, setting up a new agenda that would include meet-and-greet events every two months rather than every month and business breakfast events that would continue to educate the business community.
While the new platform has yet to be unveiled, Virga said some of the ideas include a new membership pricing system that would provide a lower rate for smaller businesses.
“We want to have a happy medium,” he said.
With membership currently at 90 businesses, the Chamber is once more seeking ways to recruit and has taken on the expertise of Ben Costanza, who once served as president of the highly successful Uptown Merchants Association.
“We hope to get 200 new members,” Virga said.
Costanza said that was a different era, but that he believed he could successfully recruit new members and hopes that this will help restore some of the Broadway business corridor.
Costanza said Broadway has suffered from changes in the economy and the nature of competition over the years. Shopping malls and catalogue purchasing began to erode sales in traditional markets like Broadway, and now internet shopping also provides a serious challenge. But he said he believes that Bayonne’s traditional shopping district can be reborn, and that it will be tied to new residential development.
“People have to want to live here,” Costanza said.
Bayonne is seeing a resurgence in development, especially along the Hudson Bergen Light Rail corridor. Combined with the belief that the construction of a new permanent cruise port terminal on the former Military Ocean Terminal might bring additional development, some merchants see hopeful signs for the future.
The city council at its Oct. 17 meeting introduced four ordinances that could result in significant redevelopment of a critical midtown light rail area of the city near the 22nd Street station that has long been eyed as critical to the success of Broadway. Development of the former plumbing company and nearby property into residential development could result in increased foot traffic for businesses.
One of the modern concepts for urban shopping districts is not to try and compete with highway shopping malls by trying to draw customers in from remote areas. With vast parking lots and easy access, highway shopping malls have a big advantage.
But aging shopping districts such as Broadway in Bayonne have something malls do not have—a built-in customer base. Planners looking at the business district said Bayonne needs to build that base, a concept similar to one that is known as a “Transit Village.”
By redeveloping the upper floors of buildings along the shopping district and providing residential housing above the store fronts, the city can create its own population of shoppers who will generate business within the shopping district. While local merchants along Broadway have expressed concern about the arrival of the Bayonne Crossing mall on Route 440 and perceive it as competition, he said both areas can coexist to the benefit of the city if the core areas of the city are redeveloped to make the best use of existing property.
The current administration in City Hall has been focused on both redevelopment of former blighted sights along Avenue E and the light rail as well as the vacant properties throughout the city, particularly areas on Broadway that might be redeveloped into this residential/commercial mix. Some areas, such as lower Broadway near the 8th Street station have been exempted from the commercial mix in order to provide for more residential development.
Virga also said the Chamber would likely revisit its program for support of local charities, and instead of holding one fundraising event that had been called Chamber to Charity (usually held in December,) the chamber will likely have a larger gala early in the year and set aside funds for donation to local charities.
Founded in 1912, the Chamber has continued to reinvent itself to reflect new economic conditions in Bayonne. Over the last few years, there has been a major effort to continue to meet its mandate to “stimulate, retain, improve, and expand the role of business life in the community.”
In the past, the Chamber represented heavy industry and large manufacturers, but lost focus as these types of businesses gradually left Bayonne. In the heyday of the 1940s and 1950s, the Chamber of Commerce was seen as a powerful voice in the community, helping City Hall to shape pro-business policies.
In 1964, larger industry in Bayonne became more deeply involved with the Chamber and the city because of their concern over taxes. Since then, the business mix has changed and a number of the current members are small to midsized retailers, as well as local service providers.
Virga said the importance of the Chamber as a voice of the business community has grown recently and currently is the only pro-business group in Bayonne that is not tied to municipal government.
“We can be the voice for business and a way for businesses to communicate with the city,” Virga said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.