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Metuchen Downtown Alliance to take shape

Staff Writer

METUCHEN — For Rob DeFilippis, whose business Runner’s High has been a staple on Main Street for 16 years, the last thing he wants is his rent to go up.

However, DeFilippis said if he has to shell out an extra $25, $40, or even $100 for a Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA) organization to bring four extra customers into his store at 454 Main St. each month, he said he will have more than covered that cost.

DeFilippis said the borough can put on as many Junebugs, Zombie walks [and more] events downtown; however, a downtown with empty storefronts will not have people coming back.

“One fundamental common goal [on both sides of the aisle] is we all want to see downtown Metuchen thriving,” he said.

DeFilippis said the borough has a unique opportunity with Whole Foods setting up shop in the downtown area.

For Jonathan Busch — who opened his non-retail business The Busch Law Group at 450 Main St. in the borough he has lived with his family for 11 years — the MDA offers hope.

“I want to work and live in a place where there is action,” he said.

Busch said his business would benefit tremendously from additional foot traffic downtown, which the MDA will focus on.

“I know this would be a change from the times of Morris stores [which closed in the early 1990s], but more people living and working downtown will be a significant improvement to our business community which will enhance our downtown and as a result benefit all residents in our community,” he said.

The formation of the MDA will come to fruition, which stakeholders of the alliance and borough officials say will hopefully revitalize the downtown area.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” said Councilman Jay Muldoon, who said he knows change is difficult and people are scared. “There are uncertainties to consider for sure, but one thing I believe is absolutely certain is if we continue doing what we have been doing for the past 20-plus years on Main Street, we’ll continue to get the same or maybe much worse results.”

After almost three hours of public comments for and against the proposed MDA, at a meeting on May 2, the Borough Council unanimously voted in favor of an ordinance to name the MDA to be the management organization for a new downtown improvement district.

There will be a national search for an executive director with the assistance of Main Street, NJ, and then a centrally located ground-level office space will be secured.

Council members shot down concerns stated by some of the public alleging the adoption of the MDA would be creating another bureaucracy and adding another tax burden to the business owners.

Muldoon said downtown Metuchen can be so much better — cleaner, attractive and successful — with an MDA organization.

“Our downtown is a strategic and valuable asset for Metuchen, but it needs investment in order to flourish,” he said. “The state of our downtown today is not great, [there are] too many vacancies, poor economics, tired streetscapes and facades to name a few problems … it has struggled in this condition for far too long.”

With an MDA in place, Muldoon said the organization allows for someone to be there proactively and professionally managing and marketing the downtown for the borough, working with a volunteer board and businesses to develop a strategic plan identifying new retail and other businesses to recruit for Metuchen and connect businesses with landlords that have vacancies.

“Those things are not being done today … that is why we have a struggling downtown,” he said. “[The organization] will revitalize the downtown by leveraging, managing and integrating the new development that is being developed with our current Main Street. We are going to redefine our downtown.”

Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen agreed, commenting that forming the MDA gives the borough a chance for a successful downtown.

Muldoon said the borough will demonstrate its commitment by committing funds from its proceeds from the sale of the Pearl Street parking lot to support the MDA.

The concept of an MDA has been discussed several times in Metuchen since the 1970s, and Metuchen’s Development Commission has historically advocated for a downtown management organization.

The MDA will operate independently as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization formed under the auspices of Main Street, NJ, part of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, sponsoring Main Street America.

The district area, which consists of only commercial businesses and/or commercial businesses with residential units, centers on Main Street, Middlesex Avenue and Amboy Avenue, and includes the Metuchen SportsPlex on Durham Avenue.

“No residential taxes will be paid to support [the MDA],” said Muldoon.

The MDA will be run by a full-time paid executive director at an annual salary of $60,000 to $70,000, supported by a volunteer board of trustees and volunteer teams of business owners and landlords who will work on bringing in grant money.

The MDA Board of Trustees will be made up of 13 members — four district business owners, four district real estate owners, one Metuchen resident who is not a district business/property owner, one member of the Borough Council, one member of the Chamber of Commerce board, one member from the Arts Council and one member from the Metuchen Parking Authority.

The executive director will be the central point of contact for businesses interested in locating in the district. The job duties include retaining and strengthening existing businesses; beautifying the district to draw tenants and customers/clients; coordinating joint marketing, advertising and branding, including social media; integrating new developments with existing properties/businesses; leveraging the borough’s transportation assets; and being a liaison with the municipality to get new businesses in.

Jan Margolis, a member of the Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce, said the MDA would work together with the municipality for shared services, including the Department of Public Works picking up trash off the sidewalks and enforcement making sure no litter is on the streets.

“This will not be a bureaucracy … we can love the Brainy Borough together,” she said.

With an MDA, Margolis has said it could help revive the 1927 Metuchen Forum Theater, one of the only single-screen privately owned theaters in the state, which had been on the market for sale.

“It has been taken off the market,” she said, noting that the owner, Peter Loewy, is hopeful that MDA can revive the theater.

On May 12, Preservation New Jersey — an organization that advocates for and promotes historic preservation as a sustainable strategy to protect and enhance the vitality and heritage of New Jersey’s richly diverse communities — announced that the Forum is on its annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites for 2016.

The projected budget for the MDA will be $275,000 — 50 percent for staffing and office rent, 10 percent for maintenance and cleaning, 5 percent for recruitment, retention and marketing, 5 percent for planting and 27 percent for capital improvements.

Eric Berger, principal of U.S. Real Estate Acquisitions, LLC in Metuchen and Somerville, has said the “meat and potatoes” of the MDA funding will come from the Downtown Improvement District (DID) Assessment, and then there will be a borough parking authority contribution plus fees from fundraisers, grants and sponsorships.

The funding proposal includes a four-year phased-in real estate tax percentage increase for business and/or property owners.

“The increases are phased in so there will be no sudden increase,” said Berger.

In 2016, the borough’s parking authority will invest $150,000 with no contribution from the DID Assessment; in 2017, the borough will invest $150,000 and the DID will invest $125,000, from 3.2 percent of real estate taxes collected; in 2018, the borough’s investment will be reduced to $125,000 and the DID’s investment is increased to $150,000 from 3.8 percent of real estate taxes collected; in 2019, the borough’s investment will be $100,000 and the DID’s $175,000 from 4.4 percent of real estate taxes collected. By 2020, the borough’s investment will be $75,000 and the DID’s $200,000 from 5 percent of real estate taxes collected.

“To raise $200,000 from the DID assessment, the rate would be 5 percent of real estate taxes of each property in the district,” he said.

This equates to a rate of about 0.11 percent of fair market value. The rate is 0.12 percent in Westfield, 0.15 percent in Montclair and 0.16 percent in Somerville.

Officials hope by late summer, the executive director will be hired and will start work on organizing teams and recruiting volunteers.

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