By Pam Hersh
The week of Jan. 18 was jam-packed with two emotionally intense celebrations: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18 and the inauguration of the nation’s president and vice president on Jan. 20. There was a third celebration, however, that may have lacked the goosebump drama of the inauguration and MLK Day, but nevertheless was significant for Princeton residents. Over a period of three (half) days (Jan. 19, 21 and 22), Downtown New Jersey (DNJ) held its annual conference “Downtown Recovery: Survive and Thrive in 2021.”
Although I was unable to attend the remote conference in real time (I watched the proceedings afterwards via a link on the Downtown NJ website), there was an important Princetonian – Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros – who was among the 170 attendees. Michelle – unlike me – is in a really good position to take the knowledge gleaned at the conference and add to her arsenal of creative and possibly transformational initiatives to benefit the businesses of Princeton.
When I discovered Michelle’s attendance at the virtual meeting, it triggered a memory of one of her campaign talking points when she ran for Princeton Council.
“I believe that a thriving local economy is essential to Princeton’s quality of life. It gives us the convenience of walking and biking to shopping, dining and activities, provides employment, and offsets our residential property tax burden which helps to support the nonprofit organizations and cultural institutions that make Princeton a unique and special place to live,” she said as a candidate – and has repeated with passion and conviction many times since then as an elected official, particularly this past year of COVID economic havoc.
DNJ speakers and panel discussions offered insights and lessons into downtown management best practices, as well as development, business, and retail market trends. The overall message of the event was: COVID-19 may have changed our behaviors, disrupted the economy, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, but small businesses, the backbone of our democratic society, have prevailed – like democracy. Downtowns are vehicles for providing enormous economic cultural and social benefits to communities throughout New Jersey – and they will continue to do so thanks to new strategies, creativity, and enhanced cooperation between government/regulatory entities and the small businesses.
“I found the entire conference very informative. I learned a lot – what we are doing right, what we could be doing better. An especially good takeaway for me was the concept of fast retail (e-commerce) versus slow retail. Both are good for business overall, but downtowns with small businesses must cultivate slow retail or a experiential retail environment that emphasizes not rushing in and out but rather engagement, discovery, entertainment, socialization,” Michelle said.
The DNJ Conference had one session whose panelists were mayors of municipalities with vibrant downtowns. All the mayors agreed on the importance of communication between municipal officials and the business community, on the need for the elected officials to lead, rather than just manage during a crisis.
Princeton Council took the lead and established the Princeton Economic Development Committee comprising commercial property owners, retailers, service business representatives and non-profit organizations. The town council hired a consultant, Stuart Koperweis of Economic Development Strategies, LLC to work with the Economic Development Committee and lay the groundwork for a business revitalization strategic plan.
The council also initiated weekly virtual meetings with the business community (now the meetings are monthly). These gatherings attracted sometimes as many as 90 participants for a “very productive listening and learning session,” Michelle said.
Some very concrete initiatives, however, emerged from the listening and learning. “We got updates from the health officer who provided not only the latest information from the state, but also gave advice to the retailers about how to create a COVID safe environment. The town was able to really help the merchants in very concrete ways – helping with getting loans and grants from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, advising about unemployment for their workers, and facilitating creative initiatives the merchants were proposing to save their businesses,” Michelle said.
But most impressive was the formation of the Princeton Resiliency Fund, whose goal is to provide emergency assistance in the form of grants for independently owned small businesses located in Princeton (anywhere) and suffering from the effects of the pandemic. Michelle sits on the advisory committee of this fund.
As suggested by the DNJ panelists and implemented by Princeton and other towns, “facilitating” means making it quick and easy to put up that tent, do outdoor seating both on the sidewalk and on the street, put up signs that do not have to conform with the sign ordinance – and waiving fees for permits to do all of the above.
“Fortunately, the town was in a strong enough fiscal situation to waive the fees and take a hit on parking revenues (parking spaces were sacrificed for pickup and delivery zones and outdoor seating). Some of these improvements in both process and communication may have been inspired by a bad situation but will lead to permanent changes for the better,” Michelle said.
Princeton also did an A+ job in the area of collaboration with arts organizations to improve the business and overall ambiance of the town—thus a cliché win-win. The council contracted with the Arts Council of Princeton to beautify the downtown with artful signage about wearing masks, social distancing markers for the sidewalks, decoration of the huge concrete bollards that delineated the outdoor seating from the road, The town’s “Winter Wonderland” sheds, from which a rotating group of artists and niche merchandisers sold their wares, were purchased from a local landscaper and decorated by the stage crew at McCarter Theatre.
And those beautiful curbside evergreen trees that were the talk of the town were purchased by the town, decorated by the businesses, and will be replanted by the town in Community Park.
As I strolled through downtown Princeton late Sunday afternoon as the Nor’easter was barreling down on the community, there still was some lighthearted activity on the streets. Kids sliding on a snow disc and people were laughing and eating as they huddled together at one of Witherspoon Street’s outdoor tables. The bounce in my step was deflated when I saw that the Ann Taylor and MAC (makeup) shops were empty of all merchandise, but a Small World coffee revived me along with the knowledge that Michelle and her colleagues on the council are working 24/7 on ensuring that the businesses “survive and thrive.”