With a growing number of people operating businesses at home, some Hunterdon County communities are rolling out the welcome mat for these enterprising entrepreneurs.
Through an innovative effort involving eight towns along the Interstate 78/Route 22 corridor, local and county officials are teaming up to take steps that make it easier for people to open, expand and operate a home-based business.
“We want Hunterdon to be a hub for home-based business growth and innovation,” said county Commissioner Susan Soloway. “As more entrepreneurs are opening businesses at home, we want them to know that Hunterdon is the perfect place to establish their enterprises.”
The pandemic has fueled the growth of home-based businesses, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Justice, which found 1 in 3 home-based business owners started their venture after pandemic-related job losses.
To be at the forefront of this growth, Hunterdon 78/22 Coalition recently launched the Home-Based Business Initiative, aimed at helping towns implement friendly policies and practices for these business owners, while still maintaining the integrity of the neighborhoods in which they are located.
“We offer attractive, walkable downtowns, excellent schools, quiet neighborhoods, beautiful open space and easy access to major highways,” Soloway said.
The initiative, led by the Hunterdon County Office of Economic Development, currently encompasses Bethlehem, Union, Clinton, Franklin and Readington townships and Clinton, High Bridge and Lebanon boroughs, but is expected to expand to other towns over time.
County and local officials said that fostering an environment conducive to growing home-based businesses will strengthen Hunterdon’s economic base, fueling growth for individuals and businesses alike.
Carey Bell is one of Hunterdon’s at-home entrepreneurs. The 30-year-old creates delectable sweets in a bakeshop in the garage of her family’s Franklin Township home, where she uses locally-sourced products in her pies, cakes, cookies and donuts.
“To cut down on overhead costs and staffing, I knew I didn’t want to start with a storefront,” said Bell, owner of Sweet Caroline’s Bakeshop. “If I can do this in my backyard, why not? I love that I don’t have to commute anywhere. I wake up and go out to the bakeshop.”
The coalition hired a consultant to explore ways Hunterdon towns can be more friendly to at-home businesses and help promote these ventures. That resulted in a model ordinance that would remove outdated or unnecessary barriers, while still protecting neighbors from undue annoyances. Recommendations include:
- Instituting a flexible permit process;
- Providing more flexibility in the allowable number of nonresident employees;
- Lifting prohibitions on the sale of goods from a home-based business;
- Allowing signs.
The consultant’s report also recommends classifying at-home businesses into different categories, with appropriate rules for each category, based on factors such as the number of customer visits, the number of nonresident employees and whether the business ships goods.
Each of the coalition’s communities is in different phases of reviewing the model ordinance to determine how to shape its own policies to align with best practices that attract and sustain at-home businesses.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all model,” Soloway said. “Each community will take into consideration its own unique characteristics and adopt a model that works best for its business owners and their neighbors.”
Bethlehem Township already has an ordinance governing home-based businesses, but Mayor Paul Muir said the township can improve upon it.
“We learned a lot from this model ordinance and plan on revisiting our ordinance this year,” Muir said. “We are a rural community with no downtown, so we have to be innovative in how we offer economic opportunities. We want to give our residents the ability to start businesses, while still protecting our neighbors.”
One area that Bethlehem officials are considering is loosening restrictions on using accessory structures.
“We think there are appropriate ways to capitalize on farms and larger properties with accessory structures that could be used to house a home-based business,” Muir said, adding that officials are also reviewing rules for signs, the number of allowed employees and parking requirements.
“I believe in the value of economic development,” Muir said. “We want to keep our families together. We want each generation to stay in Hunterdon County. Without opportunity, we’re going to lose new generations.”
Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach said local officials plan to carefully consider the development of an ordinance that guides home business owners, while sending a broad message that at-home businesses are welcome in Clinton.
“It’s about creating a new normal for our residents and our business community,” Kovach said. “Essentially, we all win when small businesses are successful.”
Hunterdon officials note that home-based businesses create a ripple effect in the economy, helping to spur growth in other sectors. Bell, for example, buys nearly all the products she uses in her baked goods from local farmers.
“I believe in supporting my local farmers,” Bell said. “I use eggs that were literally raised a half-mile down the road, local milk, flour and oats. I’m supporting my neighbors, while also delivering wholesome products.”
With the help of her architect father, Bell outfitted a garage with sinks, commercial ovens, refrigerators and freezers. She services about a dozen wholesale accounts, while also delivering baked goods to coffee shops across the county.
While Bell had to gain permits and approvals from the township and the county, she said the process was relatively smooth.
“The township was great to work with,” Bell said. “They want to grow the community and they value home-based businesses.”
At-home operations bring another layer of value with them; they frequently expand to become brick-and-mortar businesses. In fact, according to the U.S. Small Business Association, 50% of all small businesses begin at home.
Eric Emerson, CEO of e2 IT Consulting, started his technology support company in his Clinton Township home in 2014. He now has an office on Main Street in Clinton and is helping countless businesses manage their critical technological needs.
“Being able to start the business in my home gave me the time and opportunity to grow my client base and expand the business until it could support space and staff,” Emerson said. “This is a perfect option for entrepreneurs, while also strengthening the economic base in communities. It’s great that Hunterdon is working to enable more people to grow and expand at-home businesses.”
Reach Hunterdon 78/22 Coalition at: hunterdoncountyedc.com or call 908-399-1108.
Reach Sweet Caroline’s Bakeshop at: sweetcarolinesbakeshop.com or call 908-310-6798.
Reach e2 IT Consulting at: e2itconsulting.com or call 908-318-4755.