NEW JERSEY — South Orange Village President Sheena Collum participated in a panel of mayors speaking about how they have navigated the pandemic for, and with, their townships.
The Jan. 21 presentations and discussion focused on downtowns, as it was part of Downtown NJ’s annual conference, happening virtually this year. The other panel members were Mayor Betsy Driver of Flemington Borough, Mayor Paul Kanitra of Point Pleasant Beach Borough and Mayor Sean Spiller of Montclair Township. Robert Goldsmith, a partner at Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis, LLP whose practice focuses on redevelopment, downtown and urban revitalization, moderated the discussion.
Governing bodies must “make things easy for your businesses right now,” suggested Collum. “Within six or seven months, the hope is to get 70 percent of people vaccinated throughout New Jersey,” said Collum. So the question remains, “how are we going to get to that spot and what is it going to take to transition from now until then and make sure that we keep those small businesses there?”
Two things that have helped support downtown businesses in South Orange, she said, are temporarily suspending business's municipal fees and holding a weekly outdoor market in a large parking lot that, pre-pandemic, would have been full of commuters’ or shoppers’ cars. She noted that South Orange received a Main Street program grant from the Department of Community Affairs toward setting up the market, which ran weekly in November and December.
“Being able to have that outdoor venue was absolutely incredible,” and helped vendors and stores get through the Christmas shopping season, she said. “And I'm seeing pop ups all over the place as municipalities are being very flexible” with creative use of outdoor areas. “Whether it's park space, open space, surface parking, parklets — being able to use that as an outdoor avenue for people to be able to participate in commerce” will help municipalities and businesses, Collum added.
In the spring of 2020, once the governing body of the 1.4 square mile town of Flemington realized the pandemic with not going away in a few weeks, “we quickly put a bunch of changes [into] some of our zoning ordinances,” said Driver, with a combination of resolutions and ordinances.
The first change, she said, “was allowing outdoor dining… Wherever there was a restaurant, wherever dining was permitted, outdoor dining was permitted as well. And that was a huge help for a lot of these restaurants as they started to open back up.” Some parking was also changed to 15-minute parking for customers to pick up to-go orders.
Driver added that Flemington “worked closely with our emergency management folks to make sure that our businesses had the tools and the signage they needed to reopen and practice social distancing.” She said she was impressed to see some entrepreneurs even opening restaurants during the pandemic.
Kanitra of Point Pleasant Beach took office last Jan. 1; most of his time in office has been dealing with the pandemic while also fighting the “stagnation” of the historic downtown which he said did not have a formal plan for future growth. One historic building, formerly Gottlieb’s Department Store, was saved from a wrecking ball and in the future its first floor will be an indoor market with “dozens of different artisans,” Kanitra said. “They might just take a little piece of real estate on one of the walls or a little table here or there. But it's going to give them an opportunity to get a following outside of the farm market season.”
Also helpful to his small beach community was hiring a quality of life director to assist “all our businesses and residents with PPP loans, with the New Jersey state business grants [and] with unemployment insurance.” So far she has “helped close to 200 different people with the applications, with moving things through the process [and] with just understanding what's available to them.”
He also said that adding parklets, although logistically difficult because several main thoroughfares in town are state and county roads, boosted local businesses. “My hope is, coming out of the pandemic — now that we've proven that they're not safety hazards, that there were no cars running into them, that they functioned well, that they actually slowed traffic too — [we can] make these permanent.”
In Montclair, investing in infrastructure over the past eight years, reducing debt and building up financial reserves “mattered because when [the pandemic] hit and money was needed, revenues were down,” said Spiller, who began his term during the pandemic.
“We had the resources, we had the triple-A bond rating — the sort of pieces that that allowed us a little bit of financial flexibility to offer potentially a little more assistance than some others might have been able to.” He also agreed with South Orange’s Collum that lifting municipal fees for parking and outdoor café permits was helpful to local businesses.
Having reserves also meant Montclair was able to support businesses pivoting to setting up outdoors. “There are more businesses looking to do that, [and] we were able to offer direct local township aid grants, about $150,000 worth.”
Moderator Goldsmith complimented the mayors on the panel. He said their ability to deal with “absolutely unprecedented” difficulties was “stirring, and the common theme seems to be flexibility and creativity in responding to extraordinary challenges.”
Looking to the future, Goldsmith asked the panel if, “from a point of view of downtown redevelopment revitalization post-COVID, do you think that medical marijuana and soon to be legalized [recreational] marijuana is something you would want in your downtown?”
Montclair already has a dispensary, and the panelists from South Orange and Flemington each said yes, depending on the site and circumstances. Kanitra, however, said in Point Pleasant Beach “the previous council actually passed an ordinance stating that no medical or any marijuana businesses could be open in the borough.” He also noted that it is a small community and residents seeking a dispensary will likely not have to travel too far to find one.
In all, steering a community through the coronavirus quarantine has “been a learning experience,” Driver of Flemington noted. “Every day I'm learning something new about how to react and how to keep the town functioning in a pandemic.”
Driver added, “The one good thing coming out of all of this as well is just how well it has strengthened the borough’s resiliency to future disasters that may come along and how we conduct business and how we conduct governance as well.”