Jan. 27, 2016: The borough is in trouble. (Bear with me).
Residents and business owners at Borough Hall Tuesday night shouted out a litany of problems they believe the borough’s downtown district is facing, including empty store fronts, parking woes, lack of maintenance and cleanliness, redundant selection of businesses and high rents for merchants.
They gathered to hear a possible solution to these problems.
That solution, proposed by a group of volunteers Tuesday, is to form a non-profit downtown management organization.
The downtown organization would be called Metuchen Downtown Alliance and would be led by an executive director and a board of directors.
The volunteer stakeholder group estimated the organization would require an annual budget of $275,000. The bulk of the money would be for salary and administrative costs. It would also be used for capital improvements, plantings, marketing, recruitment and retention of businesses.
The main functions of the organization seem to be around marketing and selling the business district, helping to attract in new businesses, keeping the district clean and even directing capital improvements. The organization would work alongside the Chamber of Commerce. It would not have powers of condemnation nor could it change zoning.
Before we get into the particulars, this is important: nothing, as of now, is set in stone. The proposal would need to be approved by borough council and would be subject to a public hearing. The group plans to make a presentation before Borough Council in March.
So this is a proposal now, though one with high level support in the borough, including from Councilwoman Allison Inserro, who helped lead the discussion Tuesday. New Mayor Pete Cammarano was present at the beginning of the meeting though he didn’t make any comments.
“If we do nothing, we’ll be in the same place 10 years from now that we are today, and complaining,” Inserro said.
The downtown management organization would be funded through municipal contributions from the sale of the Pearl Street lot and a funding vehicle called a business improvement district (BID). A BID is a pre-defined area within which property owners pay an annual fee on real estate. Other funding sources could include grants, fundraisers and sponsorships.
Residents would not be responsible for funding, said Jan Margolis, a member of the volunteer stakeholder group. Inserro stressed taxes would not be raised as part of this plan.
“If you’re thinking the council is going to pass a tax increase on your home values to cover this, that is not the case. And, in fact, residents usually see in these types of towns … their home values rise as the business sector improves,” Inserro said.
The $275,000 annual budget would be funded, starting in the summer of 2016, with $150,000 from proceeds of the sale of the Pearl Street lot, according to the presentation. Future municipal contributions would come from Parking Authority proceeds, according to Eric Berger, a member of the volunteer stakeholders group and a landlord in the borough.
The goal would be to flip the funding burden from the municipality to the BID over several years, Berger said. The plan is by 2020 the borough would pay $75,000 and the BID would raise $200,000, he said. Annual fees on real estate in the BID would hit 5 percent by 2020, starting at around 3.2 percent in 2017.
For example, property in the district with a $5,000 tax payment in 2017 would pay an additional $160 as part of the BID fee, according to materials provided at the meeting.
The proposed BID would include properties fronting Main Street from Durham to Amboy avenues; from the train tracks to properties fronting Middlesex Avenue; the Sportsplex; the Whole Foods development; the Woodmont redevelopment; and the Forum Theater. The BID can be adjusted to fit the needs of the community, according to Berger.
One resident asked if there were alternative uses of the proceeds of the sale of the Pearl Street lot. He said he wanted to see more transparency around the money and how it will be used.
“This proposal might be more credible if we have a bit more transparency about the money involved,” the resident said.
This process started in 2014 when Metuchen joined the Main Street New Jersey program, which is part of the National Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, according to a fact sheet from the volunteer group. Municipalities who join the Main Street program must commit to hiring a full-time downtown manager who focuses on revitalization, according to the fact sheet.
Eds – Sorry so long! Visit the Metuchen Downtown Alliance website for more information.