SOMERVILLE, NJ – Rick St. Pierre, owner of Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, woke up Sunday morning, looked out the front window on the upper floor where he lives on East Main Street and watched as his vision began to unfold.
Sunday was the climax of the three-day Central New Jersey Jazz Festival in Somerville, with thousands of locals and visitors pouring in to town to set up their lawn chairs on the street directly in front of his establishment, spilling over on to the lawn that surrounds the historic Somerville County Courthouse.
The signature event, now in its 10th year, has grown to include weekend performances in Flemington on Friday night and New Brunswick on Saturday night, with Sunday’s original concert helping to define Somerville as Somerset County’s downtown while establishing the county seat as a destination.
The three-town, three-night event is unparalleled anywhere in New Jersey, according to St. Pierre.
The Jazz Festival also has established itself as a base for St. Pierre’s vision of a thriving downtown shopping and restaurant district, with arts and cultural amenities available in abundance, a dynamic package strong enough to attract visitors from Somerset County and beyond seven days a week.
St. Pierre bought his building in 1996 and has since created a sophisticated destination for Somerset County’s elite and visitors from out-of-town eager to sample from the five-star menu and indulge in the creative cocktails served by a staff of award-winning mixologists.
Those who know St. Pierre know he’s eager and willing to share that success, working with new merchants as they set up business in town, offering advice, making introductions, providing food for grand openings.
He has earned the respect of his neighbors on Main Street and officials in town hall, serving as president of the Downtown Somerville Alliance and the non-profit Arts on Division organization which promotes art and cultural events, including this weekend’s Jazz Festival Art Market on the Division Street pedestrian mall.
“When I came to this town in 1996 and saw that great lawn across the street, I said to myself ‘What’s it going to take to get live performances and presentations on that lawn?’, he said just a few days before the crowd set up camp outside his doorway Sunday.
It took time and effort to make connections and convince the skeptics that it could be done – not to mention the assistance of fellow merchants, elected officials, patrons, friends, the DSA and AOD.
As each year passes, the Jazz Festival becomes more successful, measured by the caliber of performers attracted to the venue, the size of the crowd, the number of reservations at area hotels and the commitment of sponsors and the marketing dollars they spend to help promote the event at all three locations.
“Somerset County has always been a hidden gem,” St. Pierre said. “The survival of the business district has everything to do with bringing you back to the regional centers.
“Commerce, resources, the ability to survive and thrive in a concert in a concentrated area - that's what we do,” he added.
“Main Street is back, it's thriving and these activities are part of what feeds it.
You can’t get this in a strip mall,” he said.