In just 10 days, Metuchen will learn its fate: whether it has been selected as a Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) winner.
In September, the Brainy Borough’s Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA) was chosen among eight semifinalists for the annual national award, in which Main Street America recognizes exceptional communities who serve as a model for comprehensive, preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
Metuchen and its Metuchen Downtown Alliance are competing against the following towns and Main Street organizations.
Three winners will be selected among the semifinalists and announced March 27 during the Opening Plenary at the upcoming 2023 Main Street Now conference in Boston, Mass.
“This is the most prestigious downtown/Main Street award in the United States,” Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch told NJBIZ. “Only two towns in New Jersey have ever won this award. And they are two of the most iconic downtowns in our state, Montclair (2015) and Westfield (2004). To even be in the conversation to possibly win this with some of the best respected downtowns in the United States is absolutely incredible.”
A jury of Main Street professionals and leaders in the fields of community and economic development and historic preservation will select the winners. The criteria for winning include: strength of the Main Street program in spurring community transformation commitment to historic preservation; innovative programming; implementation of cross-sector partnerships; community outreach and stakeholder engagement; and commitment diversity, equity, inclusion.
“From painting the words ‘Shop Small, Shop Local’ on the railroad bridge that crosses over the town’s Main Street to using Small Business Saturday as a springboard for an entire month of promotional activities, Metuchen Downtown Alliance truly walks the walk when it comes to creating a culture of supporting small businesses,” Main Street America wrote about the municipality in its semifinal nomination. “Metuchen Downtown Alliance fosters good will and transformative placemaking activities year-round as well as with quarterly meetings, inclusive pop-up input sessions that encourage residents of all ages and backgrounds to envision enhancements to alleys and facades, and matching grant programs to assist merchants with improving their storefronts, accessing technology, and enhancing marketing efforts.”
The MDA, which was established just over six years ago, is a volunteer-based, nonprofit management corporation dedicated to the management and revitalization of the designated Metuchen business district in partnership with stakeholders, residents, municipal government and other partners.
Dawn Mackey serves as executive director. She joined the organization last October, shortly after Metuchen was selected as a semifinalist.
“How lucky am I to come into organization right when they’ve been nominated?” Mackey told NJBIZ. “I work in a lot of downtowns and I will tell you what is happening in Metuchen is very special. It is this magic mix of business owners who really embrace what the downtown organization is bringing them. Any organization can present great ideas. If you can’t get the buy-in from your restauranteurs and your merchants to participate, then you don’t really have anything, right? It needs to be groupthink. And that’s what’s happening here.”
Mackey made a special note of the community’s volunteer base who make the MDA’s efforts possible.
“You can’t buy it because it comes from a place of pride in the community. It comes from the heart. It’s passion,” said Mackey. “And you have a very highly educated, talented residency here. So, everybody contributes something that’s a personal love of theirs or a skill they’ve developed professionally. But when it all comes together, you get Metuchen. You get what Metuchen is in 2023.”
In echoing those sentiments, Busch noted that just six years ago, Metuchen’s downtown had roughly 22% vacancies. That number is now in the low single digits, which is even more remarkable emerging from the pandemic. NJBIZ wrote about the Metuchen downtown/Main Street and business efforts navigating the depths of COVID-19.
“This is not an anomaly. This happened because of the incredible work of many hard-working folks – volunteers, borough staff, elected officials – who have made a dedication to row in the same direction,” Busch explained. “You have your hiccups here and there. But, overall, you look at the momentum and these are not just any six years. These are some of the most complicated business and economic six years in the history of the United States for a downtown to be able to come through.”
Busch knows how fortunate Metuchen has been, crediting the community efforts for getting to this point.
“The ability of so many people to have the same general goal to activate this place has been overwhelming,” said Busch. “And it has led to this nomination, which none of us expected, but are so honored to receive.”
“I like to say that Metuchen is a vibe,” said Mackey. “It’s not just a town. You feel something when you’re here.”
She said that receiving a nomination of this magnitude validates the creation of an entity such as MDA, which is hyper-focused on the needs of a downtown, aided by that local business buy-in, community support, town pride, and that volunteer base.
“It is critical to the Main Street approach. It’s been a wonderful experience to get to know this group of people. They’re so dynamic. They’re varied. They’re interesting. The unifier is this absolute, unprecedented love for their own community and their commitment,” said Mackey.
And Busch added that it is not a community just for residents—that it welcomes people from other communities with open arms.
“Metuchen’s downtown is successful for a variety of reasons. But it isn’t only because of the success that’s brought by its own residents. People from outside of Metuchen use Downtown Metuchen as their own downtown,” said Busch. “The idea is this is a place where you can go and be part of a community. And they’re immediately embraced as part of an inclusive community that has offerings for all different kinds of people no matter where you’re from. And we pride ourselves on that.”
Mackey also noted that there are lot of awards and accolades and Top 10 lists that get circulated, emphasizing that the Great American Main Street Award is a on different level.
“The Great American Main Street Award is when you are recognized by your peer professionals in downtown management,” she explained. “This is what they do. They are evaluating your community against a set of standards of excellence about following this approach, which is preservation-based. There’s a design standard. There’s an economic vitality. It’s a very specific lens. I liken it to the Academy Awards. It’s not the People’s Choice Awards. It’s the Oscars of downtown awards. It is a big deal. And it is a really big deal here because only two other New Jersey towns have ever won this award.”
On Saturday, the MDA is organizing a video shoot at 11 a.m. around the aforementioned and iconic railroad bridge in the heart of Metuchen’s downtown, right on Main Street. The video will serve as a celebration shot if Metuchen takes home the prestigious award later this month in Boston.
“We’re just trying to amass as much energy and excitement to get that money shot under the bridge. Just trying to get a snapshot of that excitement,” said Mackey.
“We’re going to get as many people there as possible to scream and yell and party,” said Busch. “This is like our Super Bowl. It’s a chance for us to go to a national city and show what we’re made of, and hope others agree. And hopefully we come home with the prize.”
Busch and Mackey will be among a contingent of Metuchen officials and stakeholders headed to Boston to watch the announcement in person.
“I feel really confident. Metuchen’s downtown is one of the best things about our borough,” said Busch.
Mackey said the nomination is a tremendous honor and that bringing home the award would be the cherry on top.
“It would really be just a sense of pride and excitement. Like a we have arrived kind of moment. And the MDA is planning to celebrate in a very, very big way,” said Mackey.
“We’re going to celebrate either way,” Busch added.