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A self-help solution for towns

How business improvement districts buff up downtown locations

When it comes to commerce, New Jersey in general and Essex County in particular are thriving hubs. From the county’s diverse, educated population — 64% of residents are black, Hispanic or Asian, and nearly half have a bachelor’s, graduate, or higher degree, according to Choose New Jersey — to the nearly 19,000 businesses that the U.S. Census Bureau says operate within its borders, the county crackles with energy.

A number of characteristics help to make the area attractive. Some are geographic, like Essex County’s proximity to New York City, and its easy access to I-95, I-280 and other major highways. But the county also has an edge because of a human element: the way that many organizations have gotten personally involved in their downtown through a Business Improvement District (BID).

Cheerleaders for new projects

Late in 2018, the Essex County-based real estate owner-operator Prism Capital Partners completed one of the latest additions to Edison Village — a 21-acre adaptive-reuse project that encompasses the historic laboratory complex built by inventor Thomas Edison in West Orange — that’s billed as the largest non-waterfront rehab project in New Jersey. The mixed-use component, known as The Mews at Edison Lofts, includes 34 residences over retail, along with a 630-car garage, attractive landscaping and other features.

Ever since Prism proposed the development, “We were one of the biggest cheerleaders,” said Megan Brill, executive director of Downtown West Orange Alliance. The nonprofit was formed in August 1998 to manage the town’s Special Improvement District (SID).

Organizations like the Alliance operate across the state, managing SIDs, BIDs and DIDs (Downtown Improvement Districts). The monikers may differ but the basics are the same: a defined area, usually in the central business section of a downtown, authorized by state law and created by an ordinance of the local government to collect a special assessment on the commercial properties or businesses in that area.

That assessment is typically passed on to a municipally assigned organization, like the Downtown West Orange Alliance, which works with local businesses and the municipality on parking, lighting and other improvements to the area. The goal, of course, is to attract potential customers and, eventually, even more businesses.

The West Orange downtown is sizable, about three miles long, Brill noted, but it’s also got some challenges. “Our downtown isn’t contiguous, instead it’s like pockets where boutiques and other commercial stores may be separated by high-rise and other office buildings and, in some cases, by a park,” she said. “So you can’t just park in ‘the downtown’ and easily walk it.”

One workaround was to try to direct more stores to the Edison redevelopment project, which Brill sees as a kind of hub. “We’ve also worked with landlords to create retail-ready storefronts for any vacant property, to make them more appealing to prospective owners, while helping to create a sense of community. Our volunteers help to wash vacant storefront widows and can put up decorative art to make the space look more inviting.” The efforts seem to be paying off: there were about 45 vacant downtown properties when Brill came on board some seven years ago, and that number’s down to about 13 today.

Essex County in general is an attractive place to locate or expand a business, she added.

“We’re in close proximity to New York City, and you’ve got easy access to roads like I-280 and the Garden State Parkway,” she noted. “We’ve got green areas, but it’s also easy to get to New York for a show or other entertainment.”

For Jennifer Brown, the decision to come on board in November 2018 as executive director of Montclair Center — as the Montclair business improvement district is known — was a logical step. An active PTA member, she’s lived in Montclair with her family for more than a decade, and formerly served as ED of the Flatiron 23rd Street Partnership BID in New York City.

“Montclair is my community and I have a vested interest in the ongoing success and vibrancy of Montclair Center,” she said. “There are a lot of exciting things going on in Montclair Center, including the new MC Hotel, which will represent the first major hotel on Bloomfield Avenue in our business improvement district.”

Cultural connections

Brown and the Montclair Center BID are involved with the township’s many cultural and arts establishments, including the Wellmont Theater and the Montclair Art Museum, along with events like the Montclair Film Festival and the Montclair Jazz Festival. “We work extremely closely with town officials, the manager’s office, the mayor and the township council, on ways to improve downtown,” she said. “There’s a wide variety of shopping choices, and as a transit center Montclair offers easy access to many places. In 2019 we’re continuing to focus on improving Montclair Center with landscaping projects, and holiday décor; and we’re currently finalizing a calendar of exciting events, in addition to the ongoing marketing of local business and cultural attractions.”

Other areas are also energized. There’s been an “explosion of activity” in Bloomfield, including mixed-use developments that have brought “more than 400 housing units and thousands of square feet of retail space to the area,” said Ollyn J. Lettman, executive director of the Bloomfield Center Alliance. The nonprofit advocates for and engages in projects and programs on behalf of the Center community, designed to attract, retain and foster business in the downtown.

“Some of our projects have included a ‘dinner and a show’ partnership with Bloomfield College’s Westminster Arts Center, where people who attended a show at the arts center could get discounts at restaurants in town,” Lettman said. “The Center — which is only a block away from the downtown district — was under renovation in 2018, and we hope to continue this kind of partnership when it reopens. Additionally, about 12 new restaurants have opened in Bloomfield in the last three years, and three or more new ones are expected to open this year, so we’re considering a ‘restaurant tour’ to bring in even more visitors.”

Other successful BID projects have included landscaping, and the installation of brick pavers and new benches, and a brick plaza wall featuring the town logo, he added. “In 2019, we may work with property owners on constructing wall murals,” Lettman said. “We’re always looking for ways to get people to experience Bloomfield Center.”

Changes afoot

The nature of downtowns are changing, and BIDs have to adapt, said Beth Lippman, executive director of Livingston’s Business Improvement District. “Instead of cute little boutiques, we’re seeing more fitness, beauty and other personal-service businesses coming in; ones that don’t have to worry about competing with the internet. Brokers call me all the time because they know the Livingston Business Improvement District can help.”

Unlike some municipalities, the entire 14 square miles of Livingston is part of a BID, she added. “We don’t have a train station, and we’re not a walkable town,” Lippman said. “But we’re close to I-280 and I-78, and we have a lot of small strip malls with parking in back, which can be an advantage.”

The BID wants to make it even better. “We hired a parking consultant and will be proposing shared parking connections between lots — with new streets and perhaps sidewalks — so people will be able to go directly from one strip mall to the other by either walking, or driving directly, without having to go out on a main street.”

Among her other duties, Lippman acts as a liaison, helping new businesses with permitting and other processes. “Our BID helps businesses to promote themselves,” she added. “We’ve coordinated a “Livingston on Sale” initiative where businesses town-wide offered discounts, and we had a Livingston-wide pizza party, where people who bought pizza could enter a sweepstakes for an iPad.”

Last spring, the BID helped coordinate a two-week “fitness crawl” where people could walk in and try out different exercise centers, and Lippman plans to repeat it this year. “We don’t really do events where you have to close off streets,” she said. “We engage in economic development and some promotional marketing designed to drive people to our businesses.”