The COVID-19 pandemic and the state-ordered closures and operating restrictions it brought has hurt New Jersey’s downtown Main Street businesses, and what they need most are grants, not loans, to get back on their feet again. 

That was the message from Bob Zuckerman the executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation and board president of Downtown New Jersey, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening the state’s commercial business districts. Zuckerman was one of more than a dozen speakers at the New Jersey Business Coalition’s recent online Town Hall hosted by NJBIA. 

“So many of our businesses are really hurting, as you can image,” Zuckerman said. “Mom and Pop independent small businesses, retailers, restaurants, even service businesses have gone through hell this past year. Now we’re facing a long, dark winter with COVID numbers going up.” 

Zuckerman noted that grants were needed now more than loans because the federal government recently made Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans available againproviding opportunities for businesses interested in the loan process. However, many small businesses took on so much debt in 2020 during the pandemic they cannot afford any more borrowing and need grant money to survive. 

“A lot of businesses don’t want to go further in debt,” Zuckerman said.  

Liquor license reform is also needed, especially now as small restaurants struggle to get by with fewer customers, he said, Downtown New Jersey has been working with Senator Vin Gopal (D-11), Assemblyman Brian Bergan (R-25) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) to change laws that hurt small restaurants, he said. 

Antiquated liquor license rules now prohibit Mom and Pop restaurants from serving a glass of wine or serving a pint of beer with a meal, Zuckerman explained. Changing the law would go a long way toward stabilizing small restaurants that are suffering. 

“We’ve actually formed a Liquor License Reform Alliance and if you’re interested in that you can go onto the DowntownNJ.com website and be involved,” Zuckerman said.  

Downtown businesses could also be helped if the state Department of Transportation would “ease up on their rules” regarding parklets (sidewalk extensions allowing more space to the curb for people and amenities) and pedestrianonly streets, he said. 

Zuckerman said these DOT rules can be “barriers to allowing certain streets to be platforms for the creation of parklets and pedestrian plazas” that would help downtown retailers and restaurants stay in business. 

The New Jersey Business Coalition’s “State of New Jersey Business” online town hall on Jan. 11 provided an opportunity for business owners and coalition members to discuss the current and future needs of the business community. More than 150 people attended the virtual event, including a dozen state legislators and administration officials who were also on the call.   

Go here to view Zuckerman’s full remarks or click on the video below.