Newark, New Jersey, has struggled with a bad reputation for decades. A recent report calling it the worst city in America to start a business only made matters worse.
In late April, WalletHub released its list of 2015's best and worst cities to start a business, ranking the port city dead last among 150 entrants. The survey cited limited employee availability, low workforce education level and high local cost of living as several of the factors that led to the city's low placement.
There is no question New Jersey's largest city is struggling—in 2013 it had the second-worst graduation rate in the state and the third-highest murder rate in the nation—but community leaders insist you can still succeed there.
It's "a baseless claim," said Otis Rolley, president and CEO of Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), which works to retain, attract and grow businesses in the city. "I think the analytics behind how they came to that conclusion doesn't necessary match reality. For anybody in their right mind to say that Newark is not a great place to do business; it doesn't make rational sense."
WalletHub defended its findings. "Our conclusions are based only on hard data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Kauffman Foundation, the Tax Foundation, the Council for Community and Economic Research, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation," spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez said. "We are always willing and open to disclose full datasets with results to anyone who asks."
Newark is one of 35 municipalities participating in the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Program, which benefits both large and small businesses by offering financial assistance, reduced retail sales taxes, and tax credit options in exchange for businesses hiring local residents and low-income individuals.
Newark currently has about 800 businesses that are part of the program, according to Rolley.
Kai Campbell, self-titled "Point Guard" of Burger Walla, is a member of the program and former senior associate of real estate for Brick City Development Corporation. The program exempted him from the New Jersey sales tax when he purchased building materials and helped with labor costs.
Since opening in December, Campbell has seen consistent growth each month for his menu of shrimp, lamb and vegan burgers infused with Indian flavors.
"The community is very strong at showing support for small and local businesses," Campbell said. "You have to respect their dollar and give them a good product at a good price, but they will go out of their way to support you. ... I would not have opened anywhere else because I knew I had the local support."