METUCHEN – As Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen put it, “no business will be left behind” when the time comes to reopen in the post-pandemic reality.
And that is the thought as borough officials forge ahead with a “bold and flexible” COVID-19 Business Revitalization Strategy plan.
The Borough Council approved the 11-page resolution of the strategy plan at a meeting on May 26, which will go into effect when the state allows non-essential businesses to reopen and allow indoor and outdoor dining in restaurants.
“This is a concept,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said. “We don’t know ultimately what the state of New Jersey is going to allow. … We are anticipating the best we possibly can so the moment when this becomes an option for us, we can help our businesses as much as possible.”
Busch said the application process for businesses to utilize the different strategies is not intended to be another bureaucratic hoop to jump through.
“We want businesses to tell us what they intend to do so we can accommodate it,” he said, adding the application fee has been waived.
Councilman Jason Delia presented the business revitalization plan, which applies to every business in the borough. He said borough officials have been working with all stakeholders, including Jay Muldoon, director of special projects, representatives of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA), representatives of the Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce, and a number of local business owners and residents.
Delia said with the anticipation of severely reduced indoor capacity limitation to meet social distancing requirements, the plan calls for the temporary reallocation of certain public and private spaces – sidewalks, the Metuchen Plaza, public parking lots, on-street parking spaces, private alleyways, private parking lots and other private outdoor spaces – for potential uses for outdoor capacity for restaurants and retail sales.
Businesses are encouraged to use the area in front of their store for merchandise displays or outdoor dining from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Businesses are encouraged to work with neighbors to expand in front of neighboring storefronts if the space is underutilized.
Potential use of public parking lots include New Street, Station Place and South Main Street and parking spaces can convert into parklets for dining or retail opportunities.
Other temporary flexible business revitalization strategies include closing New Street to vehicles every Friday at 4 p.m. through Sunday at 11 p.m. to allow for expanded outdoor dining and retail opportunities. Businesses can use anchored shade coverings.
The strategy plan allows restaurants without liquor licenses to permit the consumption of alcoholic beverages by customers while dining in the newly approved areas and requests the Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) permit restaurants with liquor licenses to extend their premises to include the newly approved areas.
Delia noted the borough has the authority to regulate where people are able to bring alcoholic beverages and they will help businesses with liquor licenses make a case before the state ABC if needed.
The plan mandates businesses comply with all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines to ensure the safety of customers and employees as well as Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. The plan also requires businesses to provide an indemnification hold harmless agreement as well as insurance, adding the borough as an additional insured.
Eric Berger, chairman of MDA, said the MDA strongly supports the resolution for the business revitalization strategy plan.
“[The plan] is a great effort on everyone’s part,” he said. “This is not just about getting open, people in Metuchen need to realize these businesses are really suffering.”
Berger urges residents and the public to come out and support the local businesses.
“All throughout the country we see bankruptcies happen … we do not want to be that story, we worked too hard to build up Main Street and our entire district of downtown so we need Metuchen to come out and support businesses.”
Borough officials and stakeholders realize the business revitalization strategy plan is not a perfect plan.
“Some things may work, some may not, but we will be able to adjust based on feedback,” MDA Executive director Isaac Kremer said.
Kremer said one of the MDA’s rewarding efforts has been the enthusiasm for existing public spaces such as the Metuchen Plaza and Imagination Alley.
“My hope is Metuchen [through the business revitalization strategy plan] will continue to build on strong efforts already been made to create vibrant public spaces to bring people together,” he said.
Mo Atzbi, owner of Hailey’s Harp and Pub on Main Street, said he has spoken exhaustively with the mayor, Kremer and Muldoon.
“[The plan] is a very positive thing,” he said. “There are going to be some road blocks. I will have to figure out how much insurance and staffing [I will need] as a liquor license holder. I do believe the heart and essence [of the resolution] is going to allow me to work on just getting every part of my business that is allowed to be open to continue.”
Resident Jackie Zuvich, who worked on the business revitalization strategy plan, said this is the first step for the borough to bring people downtown.
Borough officials said they will promote the plan to the public with the MDA and Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce.