May 4, 2016: Perhaps 82-year-old Margaret Inglese said it best Monday night: “Sitting back and waiting doesn’t work for anything except letting your bread rise.”
Inglese, who spoke along with scores of other residents, business and property owners at the Borough Council meeting, said she “believed in looking toward the future.”
I agree with her. Council’s vote to approve the formation of the non-profit Metuchen Downtown Alliance, and designate a Special Improvement District to generate revenue for the organization, was a nod to the future. The unanimous vote was an acknowledgment that downtown Metuchen is good, but could be great. That Metuchen’s Main Street, beset as it is with vacant properties and a revolving door of businesses, should be as thriving as commercial hubs in Montclair or Westfield.
With an upcoming influx of new residents, it’s time Main Street becomes that destination where everyone wants to spend their time and money.
Like some who spoke at the Council meeting Monday, my wife and I chose to move to Metuchen after years in Brooklyn in part because of the Main Street. We saw the potential there, as did many others. It just needs a push, a concentrated effort on the part of people whose focus is 100 percent on improving downtown. That’s what MDA is intended to do.
Some at the meeting spoke of MDA as a government bureaucracy with no accountability, but the ordinance makes clear there will be accountability as well as transparency. Here’s a taste: the budget that will be created by the MDA’s executive director and board of trustees must be approved by Borough Council. That means it will be subject to public discussion (for those who pay attention).
The budget must include a report that describes how it contributes to the goals of the MDA. The budget also must be “reasonably” itemized to include projected revenues and expenditures; each source of revenue and a five-year projection of the MDA’s goals and a strategy for meeting the goals.
Also, an annual audit of the MDA’s books is mandated under the ordinance that will be filed with Borough Council, as well as an annual report of the organization’s activities.
The board of trustees, meanwhile, is meant to be inclusive of all community stakeholders, according to the ordinance. The board will comprise four owners of property in the district, four business owners in the district, a member of Borough Council, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a Metuchen resident, a member of the Arts Council and a member of the Parking Authority. (The current board does not have this exact composition, but 10 of the seats on the initial board expire at the end of 2016).
One thing that should have been in the ordinance is some sort of built-in review procedure for the executive director. I suspect however the board will create its own metrics and processes for success or failure of the role.
I also don’t see the special assessment of commercial properties in the District as a tax. I see it more as a minimal contribution by property owners (who will pass the burden on to their merchant tenants) for the good of the entire community.
I hate taxes as much as the next guy, but in this I see a contribution for future prosperity for all Metuchen residents. And in fact, residents outside the District aren’t going to be paying for this — even better. Those directly impacted by the improvements to be driven by the MDA must pay for them.
Residents, meanwhile, must contribute in the form of volunteerism, because the MDA, while run by an executive director, is “powered” by volunteers. Read here for more info on that.
There have also been complaints about the District itself, and why it doesn’t include the area of South Main. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a real complaint because I’ve only heard it brought up by people against the MDA. If you don’t like the idea of the MDA, why would you care if it includes a larger area?
But this too: the District boundaries can be adjusted, so if going forward the board of trustees and executive director see a pressing need to shift boundaries, I imagine that will be considered.
When Main Street is a thriving destination for people from all over the area (and residents) in a few years, every property owner and merchant will benefit. Residents might benefit too with rising property values.
Will this drive businesses out of Metuchen? I doubt it, but if some businesses leave because of an extra $20 or $40 or $100 a month, it’s likely those businesses had bigger problems than the MDA.
What Metuchen needs are businesses all-in with future progress, merchants on board with turning Main Street from a slightly depressed and dull area into a thriving hub attracting not only residents but people from all over.
What do you think? Leave comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org.