During the opening plenary March 27 at the Main Street Now Conference in Boston, Main Street America announced Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA) received the prestigious Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA), which recognizes communities for their excellence in comprehensive preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
The national recognition is a huge moment for the Brainy Borough and reflects a remarkable turnaround for Metuchen’s downtown in a few short years.
The MDA was established in 2016 at a time when the business district had a more than 20% vacancy rate and struggled with low business retention and poor appearance. Its leadership, first under Isaac Kremer and now under Executive Director Dawn Mackey, moved quickly to implement programs to impact the community in a meaningful and lasting way. Those efforts included Small Business Saturday, which has sparked a culture of supporting local enterprises and made “Shop Small” a core of the community’s identity. Some 60 businesses have benefited from façade, technology and marketing grants as well as increased engagement with families through the annual Kids Take over event, where shops offer youth-oriented activities.
Other notable accomplishments include supporting new housing downtown and hosting inclusive activation activities through various projects, public art installations and community events reflecting Metuchen’s diversity.
Since 2016, the downtown resident population has increased with the addition of nearly 400 new apartments. That influx has contributed to a local business patronage increase to $5.5 million annually.
Combining all of those factors with small business assistance programs, 144 businesses have opened in the Brainy Borough since the establishment of the MDA, leading to a vacancy rate drop from 22% to 4%.
“Metuchen Downtown Alliance’s ability to leverage the Main Street Approach to achieve such remarkable change in just seven years is astounding,” said Hannah White, Main Street America interim president and CEO. “Their unwavering commitment to transparent organizational leadership, inclusive place activation, and ‘shop local’ community identity provides an inspiring model for success.”
Selected by a national jury of industry professionals and local leaders in the fields of economic development and historic preservation, Main Street America says that MDA is being recognized for excellence in creating a welcoming, walkable and inclusive downtown through innovative and family-friendly programming.
As NJBIZ noted in its preview of the announcement, Metuchen joins just two other New Jersey downtowns, Westfield (2004) and Montclair (2015), to receive the prestigious honor. Metuchen was one of three 2023 honorees selected from eight semifinalists. The two other 2023 honorees are the River District Association in Danville, Va., and Downtown Florence Main Street in Florence, S.C.
“In a relatively short time, and with exceptional creativity and organization, Metuchen Downtown Alliance has become a leader not only in the New Jersey Main Street community but the national Main Street community as well,” said Gina Fischetti, state coordinator at Main Street New Jersey. “Through the leadership of past Director Isaac Kremer and current Director Dawn Mackey, the dedication of countless volunteers and the hard work and guidance of past state coordinators, Metuchen is not only a wonderful place to visit, but a wonderful place to live as well. MSNJ is thrilled that Downtown Metuchen has been recognized for its hard works as a Great American Main Street Award winner!”
Notably, the MDA has just one full-time employee, its executive director position, along with a dedicated team of volunteers who, to date, have contributed more than 25,000 hours of service, valued at over $641,000.
The organization’s efforts take shape through quarterly meetings, direct and transparent communication with stakeholders, and volunteer-led teams that design and administer events and programs. Over the past seven years, the MDA has worked to improve signage and storefronts while leaning into that buy-local experience through themed promotions and events developed to drive traffic to downtown businesses.
“To achieve this recognition so quickly is truly awe inspiring,” said Mackey, who joined the organization in October shortly after MDA was selected as a semifinalist. “As an outsider with intimate insight into other small downtowns. I can confidently say that Metuchen is incredibly unique and the secret ingredient here is the community. When volunteers, the municipality, landlords, and business put their hearts into one mission, the results are pure magic. I could not be more proud of the work this team has done and am excited for this opportunity to introduce Metuchen, officially as a Great American Main Street. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Mayor Jonathan Busch, who is also a Metuchen resident and business owner in the district with Busch Law Group, noted the municipality has come so far in just a few years.
“The Borough’s volunteers, who are the lifeblood of our community, have shown our entire state and indeed our nation, that the transformation of downtowns are possible with some focus, a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Busch. “It is truly an honor to serve as the mayor of a community that has achieved such a prestigious award. Congratulations to the Metuchen Downtown Alliance on this incredible accomplishment.”
“As someone who has been working many years to improve and enliven our downtown, I am amazed at our collective success to date,” said Jay Muldoon, director of special projects and MDA founding board member. “The private investment, storefront renovations, new business openings, and foot traffic downtown are truly impressive.”
“I couldn’t be more thrilled to congratulate the Metuchen Downtown Alliance for winning the prestigious Great American Main Street Award,” said Council President Jason Delia, MDA borough liaison. “This recognition is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Alliance’s business owners, property owners, and volunteers who have tirelessly promoted businesses and organized inclusive events that have brought our community together. As someone who has had the pleasure of working closely with the MDA, I can say firsthand that their passion for this town is contagious. While Metuchen may be small, it exudes big Borough energy that when harnessed can lead to unprecedented levels of creativity, collaboration, and growth.”
[T]his Borough has got it, from shopping, to dining and exciting programming representing all of its residents from Juneteenth, to Hispanic Heritage Day, Kids Takeover and more! Congratulations Metuchen – you’re not just New Jersey’s downtown, you’re America’s downtown as well!
— Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver
“Our success as an organization has truly been the sum of its parts. From Borough officials, to business and property owners, visitors and the heart and soul – the volunteers who do everything from planting spring daffodils to wrangling a T-Rex on Main Street to prepping wrestlers on the Plaza! We are better when we’re together and when we reflect our people, our businesses and our values,” said Bobbie Theivakumaran, MDA chairwoman.
“Metuchen’s downtown had a high vacancy rate when my wife and I moved here almost 15 years ago. The areas that are now the Town Plaza, Whole Foods, and the Hub were all empty lots, and at the time it felt like downtown could go either way,” said Daniel Cea, chair of MDA Marketing Team. “When the Metuchen Downtown Alliance was formed, we immediately volunteered to help. As downtown residents, this is especially personal for us. I have had the honor to be a part of the journey to grow our downtown into what it is today: a thriving, inclusive, and exciting place to live and visit.”
Mackey stressed that she had the “serendipitous privilege” of joining MDA at the time of the nomination.
“That gives me a unique vantage point to be able to boast, without self-promotion, about the incredible team that has worked so diligently to secure this win for Metuchen,” Mackey explained. “My predecessor, Isaac Kremer, brought a significant expertise in the Main Street approach that paired perfectly with the most tenacious, and talented group of volunteers. This resulted in an extraordinary trajectory for Metuchen. To achieve this recognition in a short six years is truly awe inspiring.”
“We’re so excited to have New Jersey’s own – Downtown Metuchen be recognized as the 2023 Great American Main Street award winner,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. “This small, but mighty Borough is powered by volunteers and has put forth some amazing programming for visitors and has provided essential support systems for its businesses through grants, place making, and innovative marketing. Formed just a few short years ago, this Borough has got it, from shopping, to dining and exciting programming representing all of its residents from Juneteenth, to Hispanic Heritage Day, Kids Takeover and more! Congratulations Metuchen – you’re not just New Jersey’s downtown, you’re America’s downtown as well!”
Metuchen plans to celebrate the GAMSA win in a big way this June with a downtown funhouse party in the style of Coney Island, featuring sideshow performances, axe-throwing, music, food, dancing, children’s activities, street art and more.
NJBIZ will have continued coverage of this story, including in our next issue, publishing April 3, with more reaction from the business community and volunteers about the Brainy Borough’s big win.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:42 p.m. ET March 27 to include the two other 2023 honorees.o