EDISON, NJ — Out of thousands of applicants, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance has been named one of AARP’s 2020 Community Challenge Grant winners. AARP awarded 184 organizations nationwide, three of which were in New Jersey. Metuchen Downtown Alliance will repurpose spaces in downtown Metuchen to encourage people of all ages to reengage with the city’s public spaces and businesses while following safe social distancing. That includes rejuvenating two alleys, assisting restaurants in accommodating outdoor dining, and supporting retail locations in transitioning to online stores.

The AARP Community Challenge Grant is meant to ignite quick-action to revitalize communities and inspire long-term change for residents of all ages. Projects must support at least one of four criteria points: creating vibrant public spaces, delivering a range of transportation and mobility options, encourage the availability of a range of housing, increase civic engagement and demonstrate the tangible value of “Smart Cities.”

Christine Newman, Community Outreach & Volunteer Manager of AARP New Jersey, described what stood out, “the way that [the project] was paired with the recovery, specifically the economic recovery in downtown during the COVID-19 crisis.”

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The social distancing requirements for COVID-19 has taken a huge emotional and economic toll on communities, creating extreme social isolation and food insecurity. The Metuchen Downtown Alliance’s project encourages people to reengage with their community, and it will provide businesses the necessary equipment they need, such lighting, heating, furniture, a reconfiguration of New Street, and two more alley transformations in addition to Imagination Alley.

Grant dollars will also help retail spaces with online shopping tools. While the e-commerce industry has been on the rise the past few years, many businesses have been reluctant to get on the “e-wave.” COVID-19 has forced many store owners to face a new reality. Since quarantine measures were put in place in March, retail locations have seen a drop in customer visits “from 15 per week down to two per week”, according to Isaac Kremer, Executive Director of Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

The Metuchen Downtown Alliance has over 370 members, 118 of which are retail locations, and approximately 40 are restaurants. The Alliance is dedicated to helping businesses thrive and making downtown Metuchen, as Kremer said, “a tapestry of vibrant, outdoor, community life.”

Previously, in 2017, AARP granted Metuchen Downtown Alliance $5,000 to jump-start Imagination Alley, a project led by Kremer to take a struggling part of downtown and transform it into a lively area for everyone. Kremer’s goal was to take a small project and show what dedication and art could do for a community. “The role of downtown is to bring people together,” said Kremer. 

Since the completion of Imagination Alley, residents in Metuchen have been more engaged and interested in downtown’s outdoor life. The 2020 grant will support the cultural shift toward patio dining, outdoor entertainment, and more in Metuchen.

The TOGETHER mural is on New Street where most of our outdoor dining focus is. Imagination Alley is between Main Street and the Pearl Street parking lot. See all of our public art here to get a sense of what will go where http://www.downtownmetuchen.org/public-art/.

Other New Jersey Winners include the Trenton Health Team, which developed bike programs that encourage older adults to be more active and engaged in the community, and the Harvest Family Success Center in Flemington, New Jersey, which provides access to food pantries and library books for older adults.