MDA Downtown Loves Dads, June 15, 2019. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography

By Isaac D. Kremer, Executive Director, Metuchen Downtown Alliance

Isaac Kremer serves as Executive Director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance, which administers the local Main Street Program in Metuchen, NJ. He has worked with Main Street and historic preservation organizations in Michigan, New York, Texas, Kentucky, and New Jersey.

On an unseasonably warm spring day I made the two-hour drive to Vineland to participate in one of three statewide workshops to restart the Main Street New Jersey (MSNJ) program. Sitting in the recently renovated Grant Plaza meeting space on Landis Ave, I was surrounded by around 60 other Main Street community representatives, eager to learn how they can take advantage the MSNJ program relaunch.

MSNJ is a Main Street America™ Coordinating Program that provides technical assistance and training to designated communities pursuing historic preservation and economic redevelopment of traditional business districts. In 2016 the program was defunded and became inactive. The Murphy administration restarted and enhanced MSNJ in early 2019, citing the importance of downtowns to the State’s economy and quality of life. For State fiscal year 2019, MSNJ was funded at the $500,000 level through the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. In Metuchen, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance administers the local Main Street program, and we are excitedly pursuing the new opportunities now available.

After taking a seat in the conference room, I spotted Matt Wagner. Immediately I knew what to expect over the course of the seven-hour workshop. Wagner is an expert at commercial district revitalization. Since 2015 he has served as Vice President of Revitalization Programs for the National Main Street Center. In that capacity he has guided communities through the Main Street Refresh® helping them determine a community vision, understand their market conditions, and develop transformation strategies to guide their work.

In support of the restarted MSNJ program, Matt presented at three regional workshops to help Main Street program communities understand the process for developing or updating transformation strategies and applying for MSNJ Transformation Grants.

The National Main Street Center has identified over 20 strategies that communities may utilize. Just a few of these include Arts, Aging in Place, and Convenience Goods and Services. The strategy for Downtown Workers, for instance, is geared toward making downtown more attractive for those who work in our communities. This might involve helping restaurants cater to the lunch crowd by having quick service, special programming on streets and sidewalks while workers are present, and providing products that can quickly and easily be picked up during working hours.

The first time I heard Matt present on the strategies was at the Main Street Now conference in Pittsburgh in May 2017. Our Borough Administrator Jay Muldoon, who had helped Main Street get started in Metuchen a few years prior, also attended that conference. He had an immediate, strong, and intuitive understanding for the need and importance of transformation strategies. Over the following months, he and 425 other people helped create the Downtown Metuchen Strategic Plan. This was the first strategic plan for a downtown in New Jersey with Main Street transformation strategies at the core.

This is all getting slightly ahead of the story. The resurgence Metuchen has experienced in the last few years truly started more than 30 years ago. Metuchen grappled with what to do after the closure of Morris Stores at our main intersection downtown about a block away from the NJ TRANSIT Metuchen Station. Real estate investor Eric Berger ended up buying the property and repurposing it into several smaller shops and restaurants. Concurrently, the municipality, several visionary planners, students at Rutgers University, NJ TRANSIT and others began laying the groundwork for Metuchen’s revitalization.

Kids rock out with their dads at the Metuchen Town Plaza. Photo Credit: Metuchen Downtown Alliance/ Lauren Beischer Photography
Kids rock out with their dads at the Metuchen Town Plaza. Photo Credit: Metuchen Downtown Alliance / Lauren Beischer Photography

Metuchen wished not only to maintain its traditional town center, but to increase access to the NJ TRANSIT commuter rail station by providing greater housing densities and a mix of uses in the surrounding town center. In 2003, the NJ Department of Transportation designated Metuchen a NJ Transit Village.

The development of Woodmont Properties, which welcomed its first residents in 2018, was a turning point. The mixed-use residential and retail property and accompanying public plaza replaced a 6-acre asphalt parking lot a block west of the Metuchen Station. This and additional development including The District at Metuchen by Renaissance Properties and several smaller projects have attracted $104,093,316 of private investment since 2016. All this development has brought 394 new apartments, 97 business starts including a Whole Foods and 474 new jobs. Our Market Analysis found each new household contributes $14,128 per year in spending to the local economy. This adds up to over $5.5 million of new spending annually, not counting spending generated by visitors and long-time residents rediscovering downtown.

https://www.downtownmetuchen.org/downtown-loves-dads-photos-june-15-2019/#jp-carousel-16593
Metuchen small business Picture Perfect Studios helps “kids take over” the downtown. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography

The investment and development has fundamentally transformed the shape, character, and most importantly the economic performance of the downtown—for the better.

Helping to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity are the two transformation strategies that the Metuchen Downtown Alliance selected in August 2017. After much deliberation we chose “Family Friendly” and “Innovation.” Family Friendly was born from an awareness we had a growing under-18 population, but were offering little in terms of programming, businesses and product lines that appealed to their interests.

With this Family Friendly strategy in place, our volunteers rapidly designed and implemented several retail promotions:

  • Kids Takeover: Kids are invited to literally take over the downtown on the last day of school. Special activities, writing on windows, and games make them feel welcome.
  • Movies Under the Stars: After the sun sets, the fun begins with movies on our Town Plaza.
  • Haunted Downtown: Businesses are invited to provide activities on the sidewalk and in store, especially for kids and families.
  • New Year’s Eve on the Plaza: Fire breathers, photo booths, and pop-up food vendors make for a festive atmosphere on our Town Plaza each year.

With each successive promotion, we accessed previously untapped energy and excitement among kids and their families who were happy to see more family-friendly activities downtown. It probably helped that many of our core team members were parents with young kids. Unlike special events like festivals, our retail promotions were designed to “make cash registers ring” for our downtown businesses. It wasn’t enough to just get people downtown—we wanted to take the next step and get people into stores and shopping.

Ghouls and goblins take over the streets during Metuchen's Haunted Downtown Event. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography
Ghouls and goblins take over the streets during Metuchen’s Haunted Downtown Event. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography

Businesses responded with enthusiasm by participating in our promotions and providing more products and services for families and kids. Among the new businesses that opened, Cai’s Cafe is family friendly and also pet friendly, encouraging people to come into their living-room-vibed café. Genus Boni is a toy store that also has fine teas imported from China. And Creative Twist Events is a party and event space. Tiny Town will open in August to provide dramatic play opportunities for kids in one of our last empty storefronts.

Innovation was our second strategy. We sought to build on Metuchen’s legacy of being a place where innovative authors, painters, and other creative people located historically—and do whatever we could to make an environment supportive of innovative people and businesses today.

Our storefront program started with a pilot project to help 10 businesses redesign their look and feel. We started outside with signage, lighting, windows and doors, then moved inside to improve visual merchandising, pathways, and wayfinding to create great experiences for customers. Each of these first 10 businesses were given a visual report with proposed recommendations specific to their space.

Cai's Cafe gets in the Halloween spirit. Photo Credit: Metuchen Downtown Alliance. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography.
Cai’s Cafe gets in the Halloween spirit. Photo Credit: Metuchen Downtown Alliance. Photo Credit: Lauren Beischer Photography

Recognizing technical assistance was not enough, a matching grant of up to $5,000 was provided for every dollar that businesses committed to implementing the recommendations. To date we’ve handed out $63,517 that has leveraged an additional $238,931 of private investment. Throughout the downtown you can see the resulting new signs, awnings, and lighting—and attractive new interiors and merchandising.

Not stopping there, we developed an “Innovation Grant” program, which also provided matching funds. This grant covered introduction of new product lines and services; new collaborations between businesses; and innovative approaches to marketing, sales, design and delivery that will increase businesses’ connection to new markets.

As a sign of our success around innovation, in early 2018 the national organization SCORE provided a small grant to MDA for us to put on our Win at Marketing Workshops. Over a six-week period 17 businesses attended workshops that started with 30 minutes of expert guidance, followed by over an hour of hands-on support implementing concepts, with help from SCORE Mentors and Metuchen High School students. The $16,740 in matching grants helped businesses to develop new web sites, launch joint promotions with other businesses, improve SEO rankings, and better track business analytics. This was followed by MDA becoming a Local Partner with Google and holding additional trainings for downtown businesses.

Recommended upgrades for the facade of Runner’s High, a participant in MDA’s storefront program. Image Credit: Frontdoor Back, LLC
Recommended upgrades for the facade of Runner’s High, a participant in MDA’s storefront program. Image Credit: Frontdoor Back, LLC

Implementation of these two transformation strategies is only part of the story. There are so many other highlights including our Small Business Saturday promotion in partnership with American Express, and public space activation projects which have received support from New Jersey AARP, Edward Jones, the National Main Street Center, and dozens of local families. And a recent Gannett Foundation grant will assist us with enhancing our informal public life on our streets and in businesses by designing places for people to gather.

The MDA programs have bolstered the transformational effect of transit-oriented development in Metuchen. The development has brought new energy, excitement, and people to patronize our many businesses. Meanwhile, the MDA, by implementing our transformation strategies, is making Metuchen a destination for families and kids, and for businesses and entrepreneurs looking to innovate.

More than anything else the Metuchen story demonstrates that when a small group of positive people come together, understand market conditions, define a community vision, and select transformation strategies—they can unleash great potential. MSNJ communities throughout the state have realized the impact of following the traditional Main Street Approach®. There is much to be excited about as new funding becomes available and communities select transformation strategies for themselves. We can’t guarantee our success will work every time for every downtown because communities are so different, but we do believe in the potential for transformation strategies to achieve results. At least that is what I thought as I saw Matt Wagner sitting a few tables away in Vineland just before he stood up to start his presentation.

Postscript

The Main Street New Jersey program has restarted following a several-year hiatus. In the coming months National Main Street Center staff and MSNJ staff will work with and assist communities throughout the state in developing transformation strategies. Anyone interested in learning more about the Main Street New Jersey program may contact Jef Buehler at jef.buehler@dca.nj.gov or (609) 633-9769.

Note: This story was originally published as a Practitioner Spotlight in the New Jersey Transit-Friendly Development Newsletter on July 22, 2019.