So your town is looking to become a destination.
Here’s the good news: Since 1989, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Main Street New Jersey program has helped transform traditional business districts around the state by providing training, tools and resources (that means lots of dollars) for historic and economic redevelopment.
But there’s a catch: Getting a spot in the program is not easy.
The program reviews applicants every two years and selects only a few for assistance.
According to Jef Buehler, a community consultant for the Main Street New Jersey and Improvement District programs, towns with historic infrastructure and a shared vision must first create a downtown business district and pedestrian-friendly environments.
The process, he said, ultimately comes down to this: Has a town displayed a willingness to change for the better and deserve the additional means to keep doing so?
To date, 35 towns have joined the Main Street New Jersey program, from hot-topic areas such as Jersey City and Atlantic City, to “buzz” towns such as Montclair, Westfield and Red Bank, to smaller towns such as Nutley and Lawrenceville.
Buehler said these towns have succeeded in bringing new visitors, thriving businesses and additional revenue into their district by embodying one of the most important principles taught by the program: asset-based change, or “leveraging the assets they do have — not what they don’t.”
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A FIVE-STEP PLAN FOR SMALL TOWNS
Five things a downtown business district can do to be more successful, according to community consultant Jef Buehler:
- Dedicate at least one staff person whose sole focus is the downtown district. “Downtown management and revitalization, which includes business-mix management, is a full-time commitment.”
- Make sure the municipality has a clear and consistent set of rules and guidelines regarding the downtown: property improvement, signage, outdoor dining, parking, etc.
- Create strong public-private partnerships to promote “municipal and county governments working with business sectors and residents.”
- Encourage pedestrian activity and safe, clean, active environments. “(Host) events and activities throughout the year that match your market and what your market could be to connect with residents, visitors and workers.”
- Change with the digital age. “Businesses need to get found (by being searchable on Google), and be open after 5 p.m. and on the weekends, when the majority of shopping actually occurs.”
Which financial resources are right for your town?
- The Downtown Business and Improvement Zone Loan Fund provides no-interest loans up to $600,000 to those communities with state-authorized improvement districts within their municipalities for physical improvement projects such as the creation or redesign of parking lots, facades and infrastructure, or buying property for rehabilitation or demolition.
- The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) can help small businesses get financing.
- The Union County Economic Development Corp. (UCEDC) can be a business-growth partner for startups or small businesses with 20 employees or fewer by providing microloans, training and government contracting assistance.