Commentary: To BID or not to BID?

Jan. 29, 2016: An important meeting is coming up in March that could very well determine the future direction of the downtown district.

Will the future of Main Street be more empty store fronts, or will it be a thriving, busy area full of people with an unlimited number of options for food, drink and entertainment?

With perhaps some poetic license, that is what this comes down to.

A group of volunteers who have worked for many months to research and put together a plan for downtown improvement will make a presentation before borough council in March. Borough Council ultimately must approve the plan.

The plan is to form a downtown management organization, run by an executive director and a board of directors. The annual budget for this organization is estimated at $275,000 a year. The organization would be funded through borough contributions from the sale of the Pearl Street lot, and a funding vehicle called a Business Improvement District (BID). The plan would not require a tax increase, according to the volunteer group. Read here for more info on how this works, and the proposed boundaries of the district.

A big chunk of the budget would pay for salary and administrative costs of the management organization, as well as capital improvements, maintenance, plantings and marketing, among other things.

For the record, I think this is a great idea, at least from what I’ve heard so far. As Councilwoman Allison Inserro said at an informational meeting Tuesday, if we do nothing, nothing will change, and 10 years from now we’ll still be talking about the same thing.

Metuchen’s downtown, at least from my New Resident perspective, seems on the cusp of realizing its full potential that would mean far fewer empty storefronts and a better mix of businesses. And this is the right moment to make a big move, with major developments in the works and an influx of new residents who will be looking for stuff to do downtown.

However, the plan needs to be wrung through public hearings to give every interested resident a voice. Because this plan is one of the more important things we’ll talk about.

The money is my big question. The volunteer group arrived at the $275,000 number after discussions with other communities that have BIDs. Anything less, according to one of the volunteers, would cover overhead and not much else.

A resident at the informational meeting this week brought up an important question: could the proceeds from the sale of the Pearl Street lot be used for something else?

I immediately thought of the firehouse. The borough desperately needs a new one, and plans are in place to find a location. Maybe the proceeds from the Pearl Street lot sale should be used to help fund a new firehouse to help defray the costs.

This is the kind of question that needs to be — and will be — hashed out at upcoming public hearings. Why is the borough’s money better used to launch and operate the BID, rather than something else?

My thought is, funding the BID is an investment in the future of this town, because as the business district rises, so do property values (presumably); as Metuchen’s profile rises, as new businesses come into town, as more people spend money here, as prosperity expands, we all, as residents, benefit.

And the evidence is clear, this has worked in other towns. At the informational meeting, the volunteer group showed a video about Montclair, which launched its BID in 2002 and has now become a destination for people all over the area. One of the keys to Montclair’s evolution was the establishment of a downtown management organization to oversee the district. Other towns that have successfully implemented this process include Cranford, Somerville and Red Bank.

The path forward is open, we just need to make sure everyone gets their say.

Editor’s Note: Usually we here at Triple B try and stay as neutral and objective as possible in our articles. Occasionally we’ll write up an opinion piece, like the above, which is full of ranting and pontificating. Feel free to object, disagree, call me an idiot or verbally applaud. Triple B is all about feedback so make your voice heard. 

 

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