Audible has stepped up its efforts to attract new businesses and tenants to downtown Newark, which figure to have a direct impact on commercial real estate near its headquarters at 1 Washington Place. Its plans include offering relocation assistance, capital for new leases and stipends for employees to live and shop locally, while it will target ventures with at least 10 employees and at the seed or Series A stage, focusing on firms with founders of color or female founders and those looking to expand in or relocate to Newark.
By Joshua Burd
Audible has been anything but a typical corporate office tenant during its 16 years in Newark, where it has seeded tech startups, subsidized employees who live in the city and funded a delivery program to help restaurants survive the COVID-19 crisis.
The audiobook giant is now doubling down on that approach with its newest set of business attraction efforts, which figure to have a direct impact on commercial real estate near its headquarters at 1 Washington Place. Look no further than the four technology firms that — with guidance and financial support from Audible — have leased office space about a block away at 550 Broad St.
“We want to create more jobs, so we’re being very intentional about targeting tech and innovation because we know the job rub-off is higher for tech companies than it is for other companies,” said Aisha Glover, vice president of urban innovation for Audible’s Global Center for Urban Development. “And so, using that as our North Star — are these businesses really scaling and growing where they can get to a point of greater job creation — is definitely important for us as a company, as we think about what our impact is in Newark.
“We’re headquartered here, so we want to take a really proactive approach to what our economic and social impact could be.”
The startups — ABF Creative, Gymble, co:census and Fitnescity — were among those that had already benefited from the new programs that Audible announced in early August, seeking to increase foot traffic, create sustainable businesses and expand the amenities and retail scene around Newark’s Harriet Tubman Square. To that end, the company said it would offer relocation assistance, capital for new leases and stipends for employees to live and shop locally, with a focus on ventures with at least 10 employees and at the seed or Series A stage.
Audible, an Amazon subsidiary, also said the efforts would target firms with founders of color or female founders and those looking to expand in or relocate to Newark. That’s evident at 33 Washington St., an office tower about a block south of its headquarters, where Harlem’s BLVD Bistro will open the second location for its critically acclaimed soul food restaurant.
As Glover noted, the company is being especially proactive at 33 Washington, where it is the master lease holder for the ground floor and plans to curate the space through subleasing and support such as stipends for rent and mentorship.
“It’s the first time in our corporate history that we’ll be taking on a lease for a nonbusiness purpose,” she said, adding that it’s looking to fill three additional retail spaces at the 450,000-square-foot building. Those efforts will coincide with plans by Nina Cooke John, the architect and artist behind the new Harriet Tubman monument in Tubman Square, to redesign what is currently a dated, hulking structure into a mixed-use space that is engaging for those who live, work or study in the neighborhood.
Aside from 550 Broad and 33 Washington, the new initiative will also look to drive activity at buildings such as 494, 540 and 536 Broad St., part of the burgeoning arts and innovation district around what was long known as Washington Park before being rededicated last year as Tubman Square.
“We’re trying not to be passively philanthropic,” Glover said. “This is about: What can we do to be innovative, disruptive, transformative in a pretty nontraditional way? … This is under our broader corporate umbrella to say, ‘What can we do as an anchor in this neighborhood to drive development?’”
Audible’s other efforts in the city have included its Live Local Program, which offers a $500 per month after-tax rent subsidy for employees who choose to live in Newark. And, in 2015, company Founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz launched Newark Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital fund and accelerator that has invested more than $55 million into more than 100 companies, nearly 60 percent of which are founded by women or founders of color, fueling growth on par with or above emerging tech industry hubs such as Jersey City, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C.
Newark’s fastest-growing private employer has also worked with local high school interns and played a key role in the COVID response with the launch of Newark Working Kitchens, which has delivered more than 1.5 million meals and helped to support more than 37 city restaurants.
“This innovative pilot program is another scalable model that can be adopted by other companies seeking to make an impact in the cities they call home,” Katz said of its newest initiatives. “It is gratifying that since moving our U.S. headquarters to Newark and the launch of many efforts to impact and accelerate positive change, that so many Audible employees are drawn to work at Audible because of our People Principles, which includes our stated commitment to the people and city of Newark.”
Notably, four of the first six companies to benefit from the new program are coming from outside Newark, Glover said. But it’s also critical that firms such as ABF Creative, a product of Newark Venture Partners, are growing in the city and showing the cumulative effect of Audible’s efforts over nearly two decades.
“That was the vision … When we came in 2007, we had 100 employees, and now we’re over 2,000 and a global company,” Glover said. “So the idea was: How do we create 100 more Audibles? That was why Newark Venture Partners was formed — to now be having companies that are moving up, moving out and permanently planting roots here.”