WESTFIELD, NJ – In advance of a clearance sale, the manager of a spice shop on East Broad Street received a  sign from the corporation overseeing his store that reads, “Going, Going. …”

Marty Silverman, the manager of Savory Spice Shop on East Broad Street, knew exactly what he would not do with the sign: put it in his shop’s front window.

“If I put that sign in my window, within minutes it will go on social media, and people will say we’re going out of business,” said Silverman, who has found growing success at his shop in Westfield.

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“In this day and age, news whether it’s accurate or inaccurate, it tends to move very, very quickly,” added Silverman, whose store has been in Westfield for 8 ½ years.

Restaurant and retail closings can draw much attention, but the actual retail vacancy rate in Westfield and how it compares to those of the region and the nation are rarely discussed – something local business leaders say there is a reason for.

By the numbers

The vacancy rate in Westfield’s special improvement district was slightly above the average recorded during the final quarter of 2018 in northern and central New Jersey, but it fell below the national retail vacancy rate, according to records provided by Downtown Westfield Corporation, the government entity running that business district.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, the vacancy rate in Downtown Westfield stood at 8.14%, the listing provided by Sherry Cronin, executive director of Downtown Westfield Corporation shows.

“The rate is calculated based on total square footage, not the number of storefronts,” Cronin told TAPinto Westfield. “That is an important distinction because not every downtown calculates it the same way.”

New Jersey-based real estate brokerage firm, the Goldstein Group does track vacancies throughout northern and central New Jersey by square footage.

The Goldstein Group found the retail vacancy rate for 22 downtown corridors in New Jersey stood at 7.04% in the final quarter of 2018. Nationally, the retail vacancy rate measured by square-footage stood at 10.2% in that time, according to Moody’s, the financial services company.

Westfield’s business district comprises 517,355 square feet of retail space within 1.6 million total square feet of space, according to Downtown Westfield’s vacancy listing. Lord & Taylor occupies 145,000 square feet of that space with its expansive department store on North Avenue, the records show.

The local retail vacancy rate would change dramatically if that store were to become available something Lord & Taylor’s parent company, Hudson's Bay, sparked concern over this month when it announced the company is looking at merger and “strategic alternatives” for Lord & Taylor.

“We have been in active conversations with their parent company, Hudson’s Bay,” Mayor Shelley Brindle told the board of Downtown Westfield last week. “And they have been prepared to invest in our town for the long term.”

While Downtown Westfield keeps tabs on occupancy rates, Brindle told TAPinto Westfield, she is not concerned about the figure.

“It’s not a metric I measure because we as a town have not done our part to make sure we get foot traffic into the downtown,” Brindle said. “Once you get foot traffic in the town, the vacancy problem will take care of itself.”

Due to the amount of space on which the vacancy rate is calculated, the figure can also change significantly based on incoming or outgoing retailers, something regularly in a state of flux.

A would-be tenant has expressed interest in half of the space left vacant by Victoria’s Secret, Cronin said last week. The space once occupied by the clothing store, Menina, at 27 East Broad St., has been rented to another clothing retailer, she said, although the property owner has yet to disclose the name of the retailer.

What about that taco place?

Innovasion Taco, prominently located on the corner of Quimby Street and Central Avenue, is anticipated to open in the coming weeks, Cronin said. It is located across the street from the newly opened eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker.

Before Innovasion Taco opens, the public can expect to see Buddha Fish, a high-end sushi restaurant at 35 Elm St. operational, according to Cronin. Specific dates of both the openings have yet to be determined, she said.

Drawing new retailers into Westfield, however, is only part of the occupancy equation.

Speaking to the board of Downtown Westfield, Councilwoman Dawn Mackey, the council’s liaison to the board, noted Brindle’s introduction of a Retail Advisory Board, which two residents and business experts will chair.

The residents set to head up the retail advisory board are Darren Mass, who on his website describes himself as a “Business Therapist,” providing advice to executives; and Jeff Greenhouse, a marketing and analytics executive, according to Mackey.

“This is going to be a way for the businesses to take advantage of a service without a cost and the residents, they just feel very invested in their community,” Mackey said.

Speaking with TAPinto Westfield, Cronin noted, this effort dovetails with the DWC’s Economic Vitality Committee, which is charged with analyzing market forces to develop long-term solutions for the downtown, including converting unused space for new uses.

Of course, most people using those spaces also must find places to park. It is why, Brindle said, she is focused on attracting commercial employers to the downtown whose employees are likely to shop at local stores.

In recent years, Brindle said, Westfield’s downtown has lost about 400 employees, and with the law firm Lerner David moving its headquarters out of Westfield, about 150 more employees are leaving the downtown.

“We cannot attract employers without parking for employees,” Brindle said. “And they will contribute to foot traffic for our downtown.” The employers also pay their taxes, which Brindle notes, help the town to provide services, such as street paving.

Ideal types of employers are those with employees, who have money to spend such as those at the recently opened Atlantic Health System Primary Care Center at Westfield.

“I’d love to see Westfield to become a big technology base,” Brindle said. “I’d love to see Westfield attract well-educated folks who have money to spend in our downtown. Law firms, tech firms and consulting firms, those are the types of employers we would like to see in our downtown.”

A failed parking pitch

Bringing in new employers, however, is less likely to happen without adequate parking, something a parking deck would help with. Westfield tried that in 2004 with a proposal to place a parking deck at the train station.

The town then put it to a referendum. “It went down in flames,” recalled Brindle, who herself the voted against the proposal.

“People weren’t saying we didn’t need parking,” she added. “People were saying we didn’t need parking the way it was being financed at the time, and I think that set us back a lot.”

It is why the municipality has hired an expert to analyze the parking situation as it plans a major update to its guide for development known as the master plan.

Perception of a vibrant downtown is not just important to drawing in new business; it is a key part of keeping customers flowing into stores, including Silverman’s Savory Spice Shop.

And so Silverman’s response to the hype surrounding a shop or restaurant closing comes with a variation on the famed quote Mark Twain sent by cable when learning his obituary was printed prior to his death.

“The rumors of our closings are greatly exaggerated,” Silverman said.