Flemington Furs was a case study in brilliant marketing and had a more iconic advertising campaign than Disney a century ago, according to Flemington Community Partnership Executive Director Robin Lapidus. Out-of-state dollars flowed like water onto the borough’s Main Street. Decades later, Liberty Village, the nation’s first open-air outlet mall, would bring tourists into town by the busload.
Points of local pride and interest, these throwback memories aren’t the vision for the Flemington of the future. Borough Council President Caitlin Giles-McCormick said she believes “everything has run its natural economic cycle of growth.”
The borough, which never quite recovered from the economic turndown of 2008, could be poised for another successful run. Despite the COVID-19 economic turndown that has shuttered thousands of businesses around the country, 14 establishments have opened in Flemington over the last 12 months, and three more moved into bigger spaces. Three of the 17 are exclusively local. The activity is the result of collaboration by community members, the borough itself, and the FCP, which manages the downtown.
On Jan. 29, first-time retailers Dave and Ally Norton opened The Corner Studio & Artisan Market, where Dave takes professional portrait photography and the couple sell homewares like art, candles, plants, and soft blankets. Their place is a four-minute walk from the house they share with their two small children. Ally was raised in nearby Three Bridges, but she and Dave met in Washington, D.C. in the early aughts before moving to and around Central Jersey to find the right place to raise a family.
“When we bought here in mid-2018, we were looking for a place that could be a really nice walkable downtown in the not-too-distant future,” Norton said. “We were not thinking of opening a business at the time, my wife was pregnant with our first kid, so we were looking at a place with some potential … and I don’t know if you’ve looked at real estate in Somerville, but we couldn’t afford that.”
Green as he may be, he saw the borough’s potential. It has more buildings on the National Historic Register than any other town in the state, save Cape May. Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne—you could practically teach a course in architecture just by walking around its 1.4 square miles. His Instagram @historicflemington gained traction a couple years ago. Nearly 3,000 people follow his feed—a pretty hefty number for a town with just 4,600 people—likely because “people have been looking for ways to be prideful about Flemington since the town had its downturn. There’s a lot of negative energy passed around about what this place could be,” Norton said. “I thought it was so sad, as a brand new resident with a twinkle in my eye.”
Opening up a business there, he said, was “kind of like placing a bet on the potential of this town.”
The bet is paying off.
“We were absolutely floored by the amount of people that came out the first week. It was not nice weather, it was late January, the pandemic is still going on. Consumers are not fully ready to go out and shop in brick-and-mortar stores, at least not the normal amount that would be before, and not to say that our store was ever crowded or dangerous by any means, but a lot of people showed up,” Norton recalled.
“We had high hopes, we thought we’d get a lot of business fairly quickly by virtue of knowing a lot of people and having a fairly good reach with our social media and having an awesome group of products to sell that no one else in the area had. We had a lot of first-time bravado, for first time retailers, but it kind of materialized.”
Jack Cust is the developer in charge of the town’s historic Union Hotel project, restoring the façade of the early 19th century hotel and expanding it from 15 rooms to 100. He’s also redeveloping the adjacent Courthouse Square to offer 200-plus residential units, 20,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space and an outdoor plaza.
The Union Hotel has been inactive since 2008 and multiple developers have proposed various iterations of its future: to preserve it, or to knock it down? Cust has had control of the site for five years, and the interior of this and other buildings were “in really terrible shape,” he said, “dilapidated.”
“We finally found a way to preserve the hotel and two other historic buildings, the Hunterdon County National Bank Building and the Potting Shed, or the antique building. They’re the three most important buildings on Main Street. But,” he chuckled, “it would have been easier to knock it down.”
Cust knows Flemington’s draw, because he already started creating it. A Flemington resident since 1975, he owns the HealthQuest fitness center nearby; and he developed and opened Diamond Nation, a premiere baseball tournament and training complex, in 2009. The 400,000 people who come to Diamond Nation every year stay primarily in Somerset County. At a mile and change away, the Union Hotel will be the closest hotel to the complex, Cust said.
“We have a lot of business establishments in Hunterdon County and we don’t want to see the county seat and the bo-rough of Flemington really continue to decline. We thought maybe we can help bring this back to what it was, and we decided to get involved in that,” Cust said.
The Union Hotel and Courthouse Square projects are in good shape so far. Work on the hotel has begun, but after nabbing remaining approvals, he hopes to start work on Courthouse Square in the spring or summer. In all, the projects should take 24 months.
On atmosphere, FCP’s Lapidus calls Flemington the Vermont of New Jersey, or maybe the western Massachusetts. It’s quaint, it’s historic, it’s got that homey small-town feel. But more than the Berkshires or the Green Mountains, for businesses, it’s got something else.
“Location, location, location,” she said.
It’s an hour to New York City and an hour to Philadelphia, and a little over an hour to the shore. There are 1,600 farms nearby, making farm-to-table there “really real.”
“So we’re just perfectly situated for access to all kinds of attractions and a great place to live, work and play; and especially in today’s time, where the lines between where you work and where you live have blurred, if you were able to choose a beautiful place in New Jersey to live and still have access to the bigger cities, this is really a choice place to be and a choice place to open a business.”
Businesses in town run the gamut in size and focus. At least two businesses (The Kombucha Bar, opened in 2018, and the Stork’s Next Polish deli, opened in 2020) operate in spaces under 300 square feet. But they “punch above their weight class,” Giles-McCormick said, noting that she really sees pet supply store Barkley’s Gourmet, though niche, as “an anchor” in the town.
“People come to see him, and he’s got a relationship with all of them,” Giles-McCormick said, referring to Barkley’s owner Andrew Cohen. “Almost all our businesses have that relationship. [Running a successful business] is not just the vision to be ahead of the curve or to open in a place and fill a space where you’re the only one, it’s being able to really create a niche and a clientele and connect with people; [and then to be] known for being the best in whatever their niche is.”
Giles-McCormick, Lapidus, and Mayor Betsy Driver harp that the community is eager to welcome other businesses into their town. Flemington “embraces innovative businesses and investments…whether it’s a diner, a five-star restaurant, or a curated shop,” Driver told NJBIZ via email.
The Nortons echo that in their experience, and credit the FCP for helping them secure a multi-thousand dollar façade improvement grant that allowed them to get the big, beautiful, raised black lettering sign of their dreams rather than “going with budget necessities.”
“It was thrilling little cherry on top, especially since we found out we got it literally two weeks before opening,” Norton said.
The pillars of tourism that once brought light to the town will be part of its future. Flemington Furs has transitioned in recent years to an online store, though it retains two brick-and-mortar locations in The Shoppes at Flemington and Manalapan’s Towne Pointe Shopping Center. It’s now-closed flagship location will be integrated into Courthouse Square. Liberty Village was purchased by Namdar in 2019 and the developer is engaging locals in conversation on what should become of the site.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to look at two of the major – not the only – but major economic drivers [of the past] and recreate our community with intention and purpose and sustainability for the future,” Lapidus said.
“[I]f you were able to choose a beautiful place in New Jersey to live and still have access to the bigger cities, this is really a choice place to be and a choice place to open a business.”
– Robin Lapidus