College plans to improve local economy

Often in the local environment, the value that businesses and nonprofit organizations contribute to the community is beyond measure. In fact, without community organizers or the revenue and jobs that businesses provide, growth would be impossible.

Debbie Taylor, campus interior designer, sits with local business owners. (Jack Meyers)

When the community spends money locally, businesses can afford to hire more people, and the population gets the direct benefits. In addition, when nonprofit organizations use volunteers to provide services at low or no cost to the public, the state government can charge less through taxes, giving people more to spend.

Fortunately for the Trenton-Ewing area, the College’s able minds constantly pump out new initiatives and strategic plans to better the local community and the economy. In order to do so, College partners have mainly taken a two-pronged approach: building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and investing in businesses.

“You can’t work in an insular environment,” said Heather Camp, Director of the Bonner Center at the College’s CEL II Program. “You can’t achieve the same amount if you don’t work in a collaborative fashion.”

With over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, Camp has most recently headed the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service of America (VISTA) project alongside the national Bonner Foundation in Princeton. This program is funded by the AmeriCorps national service and is a multi-campus effort targeted directly at combating poverty. The program is centered at the College’s Bonner Center and runs on a three-year cycle which is in its second year of operation.

“I think this provides opportunities for nonprofit organizations to get together and talk about what their organizations need,” Camp said, highlighting the importance of building capacity “to better serve the populations that they serve.”

This specific VISTA grant sponsored 12 leaders who are assigned to a variety of tasks — from outreach and volunteer management to advising groups on practical applications of research.

Camp and one of two VISTA leaders, Stephanie Kraver, have focused on incorporating local businesses into the College’s spending.

“I think it’s ideal that TCNJ gets involved in the local economy,” said Kraver, the asset-based community development coordinator for the VISTA project.  On Thursday, March 21, Kraver held an event with the Mid Jersey Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses on doing business with the College.

At the event, Mark Mehler, director of budgets at the College, gave a presentation on the College’s purchasing procedures. Business owners were given the chance to meet with College staff such as the interior designer and electrician to discuss future purchases.

“We’re a big economic presence in Ewing,” Mehler said, highlighting that the College can, in theory, provide local businesses with sustainable profits.

“As a small business owner, I see TCNJ as a stable source of recurring income,” said Marilyn Silverman of Word Center Printing in Hamilton.

Alongside this businesses initiative, the VISTA project is also taking a social development approach to growth.

Part of Camp’s yearly work plan includes strategizing with the non-profit sector on how to practically execute their missions.

“I think people sometimes do things out of a gut instinct without proper information,” said Kamran Hakiman, community networking coordinator for the VISTA grant, explaining that in order for a community to raise itself out of an adverse state, it needs to make knowledgeable decisions.

To combat inefficient tactics, Hakiman is part of a team developing the site policyoptions.org to be launched in May. According to Hakiman, the site will use “schools as information hubs” to “create systemic change” by connecting community planners to relevant data.

“Instead of just saying ‘Oh, a lot of people need jobs,’ we can focus on key industries,” Hakiman explained, referencing his report on industry clusters.

Nicol Nicola, the MJCC’s economic policy specialist, helps Hakiman and the VISTA organizers to promote community development.

“It’s very important because we are engaging the local economy,” Nicola said, “which helps keep the money and jobs in our community.”

By joining with the near-by suppliers, Nicola argued, the community is at a distinct advantage for short-term and long-term growth. According to one of Nicola’s recent research projects, a 2003 report conducted by Civic Economics, “concluded for every $100 spent at a chain, $13 remained in the community while $45 remained when spent with hometown businesses.”

“You work with small businesses because they live in the community, so they have a stake here to work with local government and to help the local economy,” Nicola said on hyper-local approaches.

In the end, what gives development and growth their value is the prospect of giving people the chance to help themselves.

“In my opinion, it’s a basic necessity for human potential to be realized,” Hakiman said, satisfied with his work.