NEWTON, NJ - The Town of Newton Town Council, and members of the public, met this past week, to hear the review from planning professionals, how residents and business owners rated the town, and, how the town can proceed forward into bringing the recommendations of its vision plan, to life.
The Alternative Press sat in on one of two vision plan sessions back in Oct. 2012, led by town planner, Jessica Caldwell, Stuart Koperweis, Vice President of the economic development firm, Millenium Strategies, LLC, and the town council.
A month later, Caldwell and Koperweis presented their findings.
The latest session, continued to delve into the findings, and presented the marketing analysis for the town.
The first vision plan, the Town of Newton Urban Design Plan, was adopted in 2005, with a goal to make Newton a place where people would want to, "live, work, and feel connected to." The vision also sought to create a pedestrian-friendly place, with services and amenities for the community.
This initial document, has served as a guide for subsequent documents: the 2008 Master Plan Update, the 2009 Circulation Plan Element, and helped to be a guide for five redevelopment areas, including the construction of Thorlabs' World Headquarters.
The Newton Town Council, under the leadership of mayor Sandra Diglio, and town manager, Thomas S. Russo, Jr., asked for the update on the plan.
The findings about Newton overall included, said Caldwell, "We distilled it to, this is 'Sussex County's Downtown.' Newton is unique in the county. It's a regional center in the county."
One of the first courses of action was to interview 13 stakeholders and ask them five questions to analyze SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats). Members of the public also helped to identify these areas during the vision plan meetings.
Some of the strengths for the town included: county seat, good schools, easily accessible, and diversity. A few of the weaknesses about the town noted were: crime, absentee landlords, county jail, lack of retail options, and public infrastructure. Opportunities included: business development, advertising, increase in proactive community programming, and community beautification. Threats pointed out were: attraction of loitering crowds, increased criminal activity, external negative perception increasing, and declining property values.
Those asked felt the town has great potential, but is not living up to it. With cross-marketing, more public safety, and enforcement, participants thought the town could see small improvements. Most of the deterrents were on Spring Street itself, which included a lack of a critical mass of places to shop, combined with loiterers on the street, were some of the reasons people shied away from the downtown. More restaurants, galleries, specialty stores, a candy shop, and an ice cream store, were some of the suggestions given.
Although the county seat, and during the week, county employees increase the population in Newton, Koperweis asked, "How do you get them downtown?"
It is those who work in Downtown Newton, who use what the downtown offers, the least.
Koperweis said it is also up to the merchants to work together. "How do we work with each other, as opposed to competing with each other?"
Councilwoman Kristen Becker, who had been involved with the town as a merchant herself previously, noted attempts to work closer with the college, and bringing college students into town, have not been successful.
"What's the answer to get bigger groups?" she asked, suggesting those who work at the hospital as well as potentials to use the downtown.
Rick Bitondo, who owns Maxwell & Molly's Closet with wife, Bonnie, suggested a partnership with the school district.
Jonathan Andrews, who oversees The Springboard Shoppes, mentioned optimistically, there are three vacant buildings, which will now have new owners; the "leaning tower " building, the former Bula Restaurant location, and the former Blue Iris building.
"I think restaurants, arts, and entertainment, drive new businesses downtown," Koperweis said.
He suggested some "anchor" businesses mixed within the downtown.
"The bottom line is, how do you attract Gap, and Starbucks?" he asked.
Some of the steps first include: active code enforcement; addressing overcrowding of residential units; increase parking areas, and allocate funds to clean up public areas; maintain improvements of "hardscapes" (i.e., sidewalks, benches, more lighting); and investigate the areas in need of redevelopment on Spring Street.
Then, the next phases will include: a feasibility study of a business improvement district; support for the downtown merchants and Greater Newton Chamber of Commerce; next is actually implementing a marketing campaign; and then lastly, is identifying and seeking out private partnerships with groups such as the county, hospital and college.
The final phase is to make the improvements to increase the quality of life in Newton's Downtown. Increasing security, and enforcement of issues impeding of quality (loitering, littering, and more), are two steps. Enforcement of laws, such as pedestrian and crosswalk, are important. Lastly, installing speakers to play pleasant music downtown, is another way to create a positive ambiance, and welcoming atmosphere in town.
"This is a long-term effort, it's not going to happen overnight," Koperweis said.
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