Looking to the future, Council approves downtown management org

May 3, 2016: Borough Council made an historic decision at Monday’s council meeting that could very well shape the composition of downtown Metuchen for years to come.

After hours of vigorous public comments both for and against the proposal, Council approved an ordinance creating the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA). The Alliance is a non-profit management corporation that will be run by an executive director and overseen by a board of trustees.

The ordinance also establishes a Special Improvement District that will be administered by the MDA. Commercial properties and multi-family rental properties with four or more units and mixes use properties within the district will be assessed an annual fee based on real estate taxes, which will fund the MDA. (See the ordinance for a list of every property in the district). Assessments will begin in 2017.

The borough will contribute to MDA funding using Parking Authority proceeds. In 2016, the MDA will be funded with $150,000 solely from the sale of the Pearl Street parking lot, according to the ordinance.

A stakeholders group that formed the initial proposal for creation of the MDA estimated in prior meetings the organization would need an annual budget of $275,000. This would be split between the annual fee paid by property owners in the district, and contributions from the borough.

Now that Borough Council officially created the MDA, the group’s board of trustees will meet to search for and hire an executive director. The 2016 budget sets out $75,000 for salaries as well as office rental, utilities and supplies. The rest of the $150,000 is slated for maintenance/cleaning, marketing, capital improvements, plantings and holiday decorations.

The trustees also must decide on a budget for 2017 that will have to be brought before Borough Council.

The point of all this is to put an organization in place to revitalize the downtown area. MDA will be responsible for marketing the borough, maintenance and cleanliness, finding businesses for vacant buildings and establishing the right mix of businesses downtown.

The proposal was met with vocal opposition made up mostly of merchants and property owners in town who don’t want to pay what they call a tax. Opposition was led by Nancy Jessen of Victorian Office Rentals on Main Street. Jessen created and distributed the “I Love Brainy Boro” signs and shirts that have appeared throughout the borough in recent weeks.

At Monday’s meeting, Jessen invoked her relatives who fought in the Continental Army against British taxation. “I’m against the MDA because I believe it’s a tax increase on small businesses,” Jessen said. “To say that the Metuchen Downtown Alliance is not government, governments levy taxes, you don’t get a choice whether you pay a tax or not. I don’t think we should be raising taxes on small businesses.”

Councilman Jay Muldoon, who worked with the original stakeholders group that created the MDA plan over a year of work, said before voting his approval the MDA does not represent a tax increase. He said the MDA will help Metuchen be “proactive” about revitalizing downtown.

“One thing I believe is absolutely certain, if we continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years on Main Street, we’ll continue to get the same or much worse results,” Muldoon said. “The status quo is absolutely unacceptable in my view and hopefully to everyone here.”

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