Metuchen Downtown Alliance helps businesses survive the pandemic

Cai's Cafe in Metuchen

METUCHEN – Despite the immense challenges of 2020, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA) secured more than $655,000 in funding from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to provide grants to businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the MDA’s $50,000 Reopening Grants program provided grants of $1,250 to 40 businesses to reopen in safe, timely and effective ways.

These are just a few of the highlights presented in the MDA’s 2020 Annual Report, which puts the intense work over the last year responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the last four years of its successful downtown revitalization efforts.

“Our continued focus on business development is what allowed for a quick pivot in response to COVID-19, making Metuchen a model example for downtown resilience during a crisis,” said Isaac Kremer, MDA executive director.

The MDA recognized the need to focus efforts on helping small businesses while carefully managing the resources and funding needed to meet the unprecedented challenge.

“We worked closely with state and borough governments to obtain vital funding and use public spaces to help Metuchen’s small businesses survive this pandemic,” Kremer said.

For example, MDA leadership, key partners such as the borough government, and volunteers, quickly mobilized to establish a curbside pickup program in the first week of the pandemic; “Metuchen Delivers” helped to highlight more than 40 businesses providing curbside pickup, delivery, and gift cards; and the “Feeding the Front Line” initiative raised more than $25,000 from 225 private donors to provide nearly 1,685 meals for first responders from local restaurants.

Additionally, the MDA collaborated with borough officials and the Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce to relax regulations of streets and sidewalks to better support restaurants and bolster downtown traffic to all merchants with significantly expanded outdoor dining.

Borough leaders and the Metuchen Police Department also closed a block of New Street for 14 consecutive weekends to expand outdoor dining. Funded by an AARP Community Challenge grant, this evolved into the New Streetery, a more permanent space for heated, winter-rated, al fresco dining structures. Several igloos and a total of 65 infrared heaters were purchased to support outdoor dining throughout cold weather months.

“However, without the amazing track record accumulated over the last four years, the MDA would not have had the ability to secure such vital funding,” said Eric Berger, MDA chairman, in reference to the five-year Strategic Plan adopted by the MDA in August 2017.

With a concrete plan to transform the Metuchen downtown into a more family-friendly and innovative place, the MDA had been creating incremental yet sustainable change via downtown retail promotions and storefront improvements for Metuchen’s variety of shops, restaurants, and service businesses. Together, strategic partnerships and increased community engagement also worked to build a robust support network, resulting in significant improvements to streets, sidewalks, and public spaces.

“What we put in place years ago set us up for the positive outcomes we’re seeing today,” Kremer said.

The strategy has helped to attract more than 126 businesses to Metuchen’s historic downtown since its implementation, with MDA volunteers and partners working overtime last year to assist in securing more than $13 million from county, state, and federal grant and loan programs to help support them through the pandemic.

Top volunteers and business owners who contributed to the success of the downtown district in 2020 include:

  • Angela Pineiro, owner of Blue Parachute, a full-service design and print shop on Amboy Avenue, earned the Business Champion”award for deploying curbside pickup signs, supervising the design and installation of signage for Papillion & Co. and A&J Jewelers, and sourcing wind-load rated tents for New Streetery;
  • Fred Schmitt and Reidun Anderson of Schmitt Anderson Architects on Hillside Avenue earned the District Owner award for not only keeping their own buildings leased and in top condition, but also assisting local businesses with building improvements;
  • Edna Epelu, owner of Papillon & Co., a housewares and accessories shop on Main Street that opened in September 2020, earned the Promotion Award for welcoming pop-up vendors, partnering with Hailey’s Harp & Pub for online Mixology on Main cocktail- creating classes, and hosting local artists to display their work, including The Hub & Spoke Vintage Bikes and Repairs;
  • Rob DeFilippis of Runner’s High, a specialty running store on Main Street, earned the Innovation award for accelerating plans to establish an online store and continuously improving the space as a past recipient of the Storefront Improvement Grant;
  • Ryan Park of Menya Ramen House earned the Storefront Improvement award after fitting out a new space at 399 Main Street as part of the MDA’s Storefront Grant program. Since opening in October 2020, Menya Ramen House has become a foodie destination, complete with a newly renovated indoor dining area with an open kitchen;
  • Melissa Perilstein, Metuchen Borough Administrator, earned the Public Official award for helping the borough facilitate curbside pickup zones, allow for increased outdoor dining and retail, and establish the New Streetery, after having just been named borough administrator in February 2020;
  • Mark Harris, an accomplished photographer who joined the board in 2019, earned the Board Service award for becoming a critical liaison to the Metuchen Arts Council and his commitment to public art and performances, including live music on New Street, jazz performances at The Greek, a Bollywood music event, and a retail pop-up with local artists at Boyt Drugs;
  • And Linda Levine earned the Volunteer of the Year award for becoming a familiar face on Main Street thanks to her outreach to businesses in preparation for numerous promotions organized by the MDA.

    More than 100 volunteers and business owners donated nearly 3,700 hours of their time to downtown revitalization last year, with their service valued at nearly $88,000.

    Due in part to their efforts, plus those of the borough government, the Chamber of Commerce, and the MDA, 14 new businesses opened downtown in 2020, with another 12 expected to open in the first half of 2021.

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  • This article was submitted by Punchline Publicity on behalf of Downtown Metuchen Alliance.