SPRINGFIELD, NJ - “Bring residential downtown” was the key theme at the Springfield Business Improvement District’s Forum for area property owners, at Sofia’s Restaurant on Morris Avenue back on February 8th.

 “We had a lot of questions in regards to the Business Improvement District, and we thought that the best way to get the message through was to invite all the property owners on Morris Avenue to discuss what's going on with Redevelopment and specifically with the Business Improvement District,” noted Mike Scalera, co-chair, of Springfield’s Business Improvement District (often referred to by its acronym “BID”).

The Forum was appropriately held just across the street from the BID’s largest redevelopment initiative to date, Gomes Development’s property along Morris Avenue between Caldwell Place and Center Street. The Township recently approved a 140-unit residential development on the now vacant property, with 30,000 square feet of street level retail.

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The BID, formed in 2011 under Mayor Fernandez and then-committeeman Ziad Shehady, takes advantage of the redevelopment process available to NJ municipalities to soften property taxation and zoning restrictions, in an effort  to encourage redevelopment of properties. Other local municipalities like Summit, Westfield and Union have successfully taken advantage of the redevelopment power to improve their downtowns.

The Forum covered everything from the flood zones along Morris Avenue to the impact of the internet on downtown retail. It included a discussion of all BID initiatives to date, as well as an overview of how a property owner can have his or her property designated as being “in need of redevelopment.”

Much attention was given to the Gomes Development property, including a presentation by Gruskin Group’s Ken Gruskin on “window wraps” to bring life to the currently empty storefronts on the Gomes Development property.

BID consultant Beth Lipmann, stressed how the internet has made the marketing services offered to downtown retailers by BID more important than ever. “It’s very hard for retail businesses to make it in this day and age and everybody knows the internet came in and everything's changed. And it's tough out there for retailers.”

Scalera, who recently marked six years on the BID, noted how surveys commissioned by it showed that many Springfield residents go out of town to do their dining and shopping. So the goal is not just to bring people from outside Springfield into Springfield, but to also get Springfield residents to patronize downtown. “I now do all my business in Springfield,” he noted. “Previous to six years ago, I would go everywhere but Springfield.”

When he first started with the BID, Scalera was told a lot of times that “‘nothing will ever happen here. It's been this way for 40 years.’ In my business that's unacceptable,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that redevelopment, especially for a large project like the Gomes property can take time.

“It is a long process,” noted Scalera. “There are many obstacles because of the immensity of the project,” noting issues like having to move power lines to facilitate demolition, which requires coordination with JCP&L.

Township Administrator Ziad Shehady, at the beginning of his remarks, polled the audience and noted that no one there was happy with the way the business district looked. “It’s been that way for a long time,” he noted, “and the Township Committee back in 2010-2011 felt that the Business Improvement District was the best way to get this [improvement] done. This is the way it's gotten done in plenty of other towns around the state, and that's why we're getting to where we are today.”

Shehady highlighted another new project along Church Mall, for 36 two bedroom residential units.

Mr. Shehady emphasized that although much of the attention is given to large Redevelopment projects, smaller Improvement projects can also be part of redevelopment. “No project is too big or too small.”

BID redevelopment attorney Matt Jessup, with the firm of  McManimon, Scotland & Baumann, LLC, rounded out the session with a detailed and informative presentation on how redevelopment in New Jersey works, and repeated the overriding theme of redevelopment in Springfield’s downtown: “Residential over retail.”