By MARTA ESQUÍROZ For The Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — The personal finance website WalletHub published its “2021 Best and Worst Small Cities to Start a Business,” in which Westfield came in last among 1,337 cities across the United States.
The listing looked at cities with a population of between 25,000 and 100,000 residents and focused on the proper city, excluding the surrounding metro area.
Princeton was the first New Jersey town to appear in the ranking, at number 831. Of the other Union County towns on the list, Rahway was ranked 1,178, Linden at 1,224, and Plainfield at 1,305. The other Union County towns, such as Scotch Plains, Cranford and Summit, were not included in the ranking as their populations did not meet the criteria. Union, which does meet the population criteria, also was not included.
Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle characterized the article as “off the mark” and said that these websites create rankings based on “the clicks.”
“Anybody can make any story based on certain data,” Mayor Brindle said, stating that the WalletHub list missed “the context…They are not in the downtown talking to the business owners.”
The methodology used in the study was based on three categories, using 20 metrics. The first category, with the heaviest weight, entitled The Business Environment, included the average daily Covid-19 deaths and cases, the length of the work week, the startups per capita and the average growth of business revenues, among factors.
The second category, Access to Resources, included financing accessibility, investor access, human-resource availability, higher-education assets, working-age population growth, job growth and workforce education attainment.
The third category, Business Cost, took into account office-space affordability, labor costs, corporate taxes and cost of living.
Topping the list was St. George, Utah, which got a total score of 67.67 — a 1 for Business Environment, 395 for Access to Resources and 211 for Business Cost. Westfield’s score totaled 34.5, with a 1,228 for Business Environment, 369 for Access to Resources and 1,332 for Business Cost.
When it comes to the stores that Westfield has lost in the last couple of years, Mayor Brindle explained that most of them were “chain stores that were very hurt during the pandemic.” She remarked that the town has been doing “the groundwork for creating an equal system for the downtown that enables the business to fly.”
“We’ve been changing ordinances to make the process easier for businesses. And we declared the entire downtown an area in need of rehabilitation to incentivize the property owners to actually invest in their properties,” she said.
Helen Rentoulis, the owner of Vicki’s Diner, explained that despite the efforts of the Downtown Westfield Corporation to make the downtown “more vibrant,” as well as support from the local government, the problems are caused by “the landlords.”
“When you have a landlord that during a pandemic says, ‘you have to pay me on time or you are going to pay a fine,’ that is not cool,” Ms. Rentoulis said.
“We have an amazing landlord who has helped us a lot through this. But landlords in general in town are the reason why everything is empty. They want so much money, making it harder to start a business,” Ms. Rentoulis claimed.
In the case of Michelle Hannen, owner of Woof Gang Bakery and Grooming, she has had to move her business to neighboring Cranford because she could not “afford the rent” after five years in Westfield.
“The landlord didn’t offer to help at that point. We went to a couple of different places, all of them with the same issue, so we decided to look out of the town,” Ms. Hannen said.
Reflecting on the decision to leave, Ms. Hannen added the loss of big brands, such as Victoria’s Secret, was “a big hit.”
She said, “With all the chain stores closing around us, it was getting harder because that was a destination for people.
“We love Westfield, but we couldn’t afford it anymore,” Ms. Hannen remarked.
Gene Jannotti, executive director of the Greater Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce (GWACC), said that besides businesses going through “a big turndown in the economy” related to the Covid-19 pandemic, “online shopping” has had a significant impact.
“The huge surge in online shopping seems to have changed forever the very way we shop. These factors make it more difficult for businesses, as we know them, to survive and succeed,” Mr. Jannotti explained.
As a piece of advice, Mr. Jannotti added that the current businesses need to “adapt” to the town’s changes.
“People continue to buy homes in Westfield, some at a cost over listing, just to live in our area, to send their children to our schools, and to shop and dine in town. Businesses need to adapt in the future to meet the changing needs of their customers and local communities,” Mr. Jannotti said.
In a joint statement, the Republican candidates for mayor and council pointed out that there are “55,000 square feet of vacancies” in Westfield’s downtown.
“The abandoned stores and constant turnover of new business are obvious to anyone who passes through. We acknowledge that the private sector and specifically small businesses have shouldered the majority of the pain as a result of Covid-19; however, it appears as if competing downtowns such as Cranford and Summit are not struggling nearly as much as Westfield.” The full statement is on Page 11.