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Small Businesses Find Moving to Easton is ‘Really a No-Brainer’

By Colin McEvoy on January 6, 2015

Jim Henkel, senior director of operations at EPS Financial, at the company's Easton office.

Jim Henkel, senior director of operations at EPS Financial, at the company’s Easton office.

When Jim Henkel and Clark Gill were first seeking a home for their growing financial company, Easton was the last place on their minds. Both men are from New Jersey and hadn’t visited Easton in decades, and had an outdated view of the city as an unsafe, unclean and unpleasant place.

But once they visited, no other place they had visited compared.

“It always had a stigma in my eyes as a place to avoid, but my broker said, ‘No, no, you really need to take a look at Easton,’” said Henkel, senior director of operations at EPS Financial, now based in the city’s Alpha Building. “It was just so charming. Easton is nothing like it was 20 years ago, which was probably the last time I had gone down there. We realized this was where we wanted to be. It was really a no-brainer.”

EPS Financial is one of several small companies that have made a home in Easton over the last few years and found success. With lower costs of doing business than across the river in New Jersey – including lower labor costs and cheaper rent for office space – these companies have found themselves able to expand more quickly and do things they would not have been able to do elsewhere.

“I know Allentown has been stealing a lot of the spotlight lately, and there is a lot of office space available there, but I’ve got to say: for small businesses with employees between 1 and 100, Easton is the place to be,” Henkel said.

Another example is SI Systems, which provides material handling systems for distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. The company, which employs about 50 people, moved into the fifth floor of L&D Holmes Plaza at 101 Larry Holmes Drive in February 2014. Ed Romaine, vice president of sales and marketing, said the city is conveniently located near airports in Philadelphia, Newark and Allentown, and has excellent hotels and restaurants for entertaining clients during business visits.

“We wanted to move into a thriving environment, where our customers and business partners can enjoy their time with us not only in our offices, but in town as well,” Romaine said. “We wanted to make an impression on people, and we’re in a beautiful building with a fantastic view overlooking the Delaware River.”

Jared Mast, interim director of the Greater Easton Development Partnership, cited several other recent relocations to Easton. Gerry Gorman, CEO of the lawyer search website Lawyer.com, bought 91 Larry Holmes Drive and plans to open a tech company incubator there. And the New Jersey tech/logistics business Earthspec.com moved its operations to Easton.

“Without a NIZ or CRIZ, Easton has had to attract new businesses on its own merits,” Mast said. “This is a testament to the city’s historic charm, walkability and vibrant sense of community. And that it’s 20 to 30 minutes closer to the northern New Jersey and New York City markets doesn’t hurt either.”

But Easton does have a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ), which provides a direct tax benefit to businesses and residents, strengthening Easton’s ability to attract high quality businesses and new residents into formerly vacant properties. The KOZ includes 6,000 square feet of available commercial space in Easton’s new City Hall, residential space in the Governor Wolf Building, mixed-use space at 118-120 Northampton County, and the entire 14-acre Simon Silk Mill site.

There are still a number of vacant commercial spaces in Easton awaiting tenants. In addition to the new City Hall, the Wells Fargo Building at 16 Centre Square includes rentable space. The city also includes several vacant buildings with development potential, like the former bowling alley on South Third Street, and the former Trendz Beauty Academy on North Fourth Street. The former Express-Times building on North Fourth Street, which was previously a mix of office and printing space, was also recently placed under an agreement of sale.

The average projected office property rental cost in Northampton County is $13.05 per square foot, compared to $18.93 per square foot in Morris County, N.J. as of November 2013, according to Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC) research.

When EPS Financial moved into Easton in July 2010, they started with 5,500 square-feet on the Alpha Building’s fifth floor. But they soon realized they could afford to establish an in-house call center, which cost about $11 per square foot in Easton, compared to as much as $18 to $25 in New Jersey locations, Henkel said. They expanded into another 3,000 square feet on the eighth floor, and manned the call center with 125 temporary employees. When the city moves its offices out of the Alpha Building later this year, EPS Financial plans to occupy two full floors totaling over 13,000 square feet.

Henkel has also found himself able to tap into a better workforce than in New Jersey, which he attributes in part to the appeal of Easton itself. With its restaurants and boutiques, downtown foot traffic, events like the Easton Farmers Market, and destinations like the Crayola Store and Sigal Museum, many of EPS Financial’s employees now also live in the city, including Henkel himself.

“When people ask me, ‘Why Easton?’ I say, ‘Trust me, and if you don’t believe me, come spend a weekend here,’” Henkel said. “Check in on a Friday night, go grab dinner at any of the fabulous restaurants downtown, and go see a show at the State Theatre. On Saturday visit the wonderful boutiques and continue to enjoy our incredible array of food options downtown. Get up on Sunday morning and grab breakfast before you leave. Give us one weekend and you’ll be hooked for life. It’s really come a long way.”

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