Ongoing question: City dwellers may be fleeing to smaller suburbs … but what happens if suburban offices are emptied by work-from-home trend?

Isaac Kremer. (File photos)

In normal times, the organizations and leaders acting as trustees of townships’ Main Street businesses tend to celebrate small victories. A new coffee shop is never just another place to buy trendy lattes. It’s a sign of something greater: often, of an energized local economy.

Well, these advocates for New Jersey small businesses now say that, at this point in the pandemic, they’re starting to see some victories. And, this time, trust them: They’re not small.

Isaac Kremer, executive director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance, said his borough’s businesses started to recover in tandem with the rollout of vaccines after a tough 2020. And that’s being driven by an unexpected development that Kremer and his colleagues picked up on.

“We realized that we’re pulling more people from outside of town to Metuchen,” he said. “Seventy percent of visitors, based on surveys we’ve done, are driving up to an hour to visit here.”

Bedroom suburbs on the outskirts of New Jersey’s urban cores are welcoming in city dwellers who seem to have a new willingness to explore one of the Garden State’s smaller communities. Inside those smaller communities, however, lurk many of the same economic development anxieties of their larger, more high-density compatriots.

The big one? All those corporate office spaces, the ones that make up a significant portion of their tax base, have been hollowed out by the transition to remote work.

Mayor Jim Wysocki. (Courtesy photo)

Jim Wysocki, the mayor of Mahwah, a rural community that lies just outside North Jersey’s urban corridor, said that, while he’s pleased a lot of local businesses have bounced back in the months since 2020’s dramatic change of everyday life … that’s always in the background.

“Our businesses really hung tough,” he said. “But one thing I do have concern about is that, as some of the bigger businesses realize they can work from home and that they don’t need to rent a big place for $100,000 a month — there goes our ratables. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

He’s hopeful — but not positive — that it won’t.

It’s a ripple effect for a small township, which might rely on people showing up from surrounding communities for local work — and, somewhere in-between, doing some local shopping and eating.

In fact, what movement there already has been of employees back into workplaces early this year is exactly the trend cited as regenerating the more hard-hit industries in a place like Mahwah.

“As people in corporate office buildings in town didn’t come to work, that hit the small business economy — especially our diners and delis,” Wysocki said. “We believe we’re starting to see a rebound, and many of those businesses ending up just fine as people start to come back to full capacity.”

The thesis during the switch to remote work was that some percentage of companies would reevaluate the higher prices of metropolitan markets and move physical footprints farther out. And there are companies calculating the costs of keeping more — if not all — employees remote … but they’re doing it in the farther-out communities, too.

In the southern half of the state, coexisting with the Philadelphia metropolitan area hasn’t strictly meant pulling in new interest in the local commercial office market.

Suzanne Farnoly. (Businesses Committed to South Jersey)

Suzanne Farnoly, president of commercial real estate-focused business group Businesses Committed to South Jersey, said that, while South Jersey’s industrial space has heated up, the office market has remained slow. From her perspective, there’s an eagerness to reconfigure office setups.

“I expect there will be more interest in Class B office space, as those previously in Class A might not have the same budget anymore and might downsize or switch entirely,” she said. “Some companies for years had the entire floor of a building but, now, just don’t need it because they can work from home.”

At the same time, some of the newer trends in workplace designs are moving outside of the markets they were first introduced in.

“We’re seeing some new business models emerging locally we’re excited about, including some of our first coworking spaces,” Kremer said. “It’s something we’re in talks about; we’re hoping to do that soon.”

Townships and boroughs are interested in trying out these new approaches — just like their businesses had to in order to keep their doors open today.

“In so many ways, our businesses have adapted,” he said. “And they’re staying creative and bringing new strategies to the table to continue to grow during difficult circumstances.”