Muldoon: Diversified funding key to successful downtown improvement

Lower vacancy rates, better mix of retail businesses, increased foot traffic, new business, retention of existing businesses and consistent maintenance and cleanliness of downtown district.

These are some of the attributes of municipalities with successful downtown areas, according to Councilman Jay Muldoon, who gave an update on the activities of the Main Street improvement committee at the borough council meeting earlier this month. The committee was formed in March.

The inaugural group of stakeholders consists of landlords, business owners, residents, members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Metuchen Farmer’s Market, the Arts Council, the Historic Preservation Committee, the Development Commission and borough council.

The group has spent time researching other places with thriving downtown areas, including Montclair, Cranford, Maplewood, Highland Park, Red Bank, Somerville and South Orange.

These towns have certain similarities, including a designated business improvement district with buy-in from businesses in the zone; a full-time executive director running the improvement district organization, along with “really active and engaged and appreciated volunteers”, Muldoon said.

Significantly, these places also have diversified funding sources, he said. These can include tax assessments of businesses in the improvement district, contributions from the municipality, including from the parking authority, fundraising, sponsorships and grants.

“You can’t rely on one source of funding to support the organization,” Muldoon said.

Money is used to pay an executive director as well as infrastructure for the improvement district organization. Money also is used for capital improvement projects, marketing and promotions. Muldoon used the example of Highland Park, which structured its improvement district into a more pedestrian friendly area using planters and benches.

One of the first jobs of the Main Street committee will be to choose the boundaries of the improvement district, Muldoon said. The committee also has to propose what kind of budget the organization will have, he said.

The committee has a series of meetings with landlords and business owners this year, “to not just share learnings and insight but to get input and feedback from larger stakeholders,” Muldoon said.

The goal is to hold a borough-wide meeting by the end of the year to present recommendations for the formation of an improvement district and present those recommendations before Council in early 2016, Muldoon said.

“No decisions have been made at all,” he said. “These are things we’re learning.”