SUMMIT, NJ - "Downtown Visioning" to help Summit position its central business district for the future will depend a great deal on better marketing, City Business Administrator Christopher J. Cotter said at Tuesday's "Town Hall Meeting" at the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School.
Approximately 160 participants attended three meetings held in October, November and March to discuss ground rules for planning the future of the business district, Mr. Cotter said, and 50% of the participants lived in Summit, 20% owned downtown businesses or downtown property, 8% owned businesses in the city but outside downtown and 1% lived in the downtown area.
In addition, there was an online survey conducted on Zoomerang.com which drew 872 responses-chiefly from Summit residents.
About a third of the participants, according to the administrator, said there was need for change in the district and many of them cited the lack of a diverse business mix as a concern.
In the future, about a third of those responding wanted to see a variety of businesses appealing to all income levels with Sunday and/or later evening hours. About 15% of respondents wanted a resolution of parking problems in the central business district.
When asked what they disliked about the downtown, the highest percentage of people cited parking as a concern, followed by stores which didn't appeal to them, businesses without late or Sunday hours and preferences for shopping in the Mall at Short Hills or in other communities—chiefly New Providence and Westfield.
Although parking frequently arose as an issue in both the meetings and the survey, Mr. Cotter said, there was no clearcut answer whether or not parking was considered a major problem.
In 10 years, most respondents said, they would like to see the central business district continued as the vibrant, diverse and friendly area it is today with adequate and ample parking "for all users" which "leverages all community resources with an integrated and committed approach."
Downtown residential units, according to the Administrator, were thought to continue the vibrancy of the retail area while offering a broader range of home types for both residents and those who work in downtown business. One of the real strengths of the area, however, also is its historical character, he said, and the city should be working to better market its pending designation as an historic district.
In order to meet some of these objectives, Mr. Cotter said, what may be needed was an increase in the permitted floor area ratio from the current 225 square feet to 300 square feet in order to allow businesses to "build out" to meet future business and housing needs.
He added there must be some commitment to fulltime marketing to promote the district and recruit new businesses, more promotion of the arts, with possible loft space for artists and a greater flexibility in parking enforcement with some control of parking handed over to the Summit Improvement District.
Resident Michael Gumport was concerned with potential conflicts of interest among those who were studying the future of the business district. He wanted to know if those making the decisions owned property or businesses in the district.
In addition, he said, it was "premature" to cite parking as a concern when it seemed opinions were about equally divided between those who were concerned about it and those who were not.
The floor area ratio increase, Mr. Gumport noted, should not be allowed to erode the historical character of the downtown.
Increased ability to add onto businesses, however, was supported by a former Chairman of the Summit Downtown Committee, who noted downtown businesses had seen a 16.5% tax increase. He also noted increasing the size of his building would enable him to bring in more revenue to avoid higher rents complained about by some of his tenants.
It is wrong of the city, Mr. Gumport said, to avoid taxing businesses until construction had begun while the owners of buildings such as the "big, empty shell" on Springfield Avenue are not paying increased taxes. He even advocated zero taxes for downtown businesses.
Ed Vant, Jr., President of the Summit Taxpayers Association, said hiring of a marketing expert for the district would probably be "a good investment," and the city should look into banks "gobbling up" all the good real estate in the Central Business District.
On another matter, residents and Councilmen alike expressed disappointment regarding the small amount of services and tax money Summit receives from Union County versus the large amount of county taxes its residents pay.
While Summit provides more support in taxes than most other communities in the county, Councilman Thomas Getzendanner noted the city only receives about 10% of the $285 million county budget.
Council President David A. Bomgaars noted a suggestion by Summit that the county cut its 1.5% open space tax in half had been rejected by the county for now, and city officials are seeking support from adjacent communities for that tax cut.
Councilman Stephen P. Murphy agreed the city should be getting more "bang for its buck" from the county and praised Mayor Jordan Glatt for "opening the door" with the county because of discussions he and the mayor recently had with County Manager George Devaney.
"We need to deemphasize county government," said Councilwoman Ellen Dickson, a Republican candidate for Union County Freeholder this year.
She called for possibly sharing services in law enforcement and road paving between the county and the city.
Councilman Richard J. Madden said the presence of someone like Councilwoman Dickson from the Northwest portion of the county on the currently all-Democratic board could help Summit have a stronger voice in county affairs.
The right approach, according to Councilwoman Nuris Portuondo, is for the city to come up with specific project proposals in areas such as park improvement, better utilization of the county waste transfer station and road improvements to bring more county funding to Summit.
Commitments by the county to traffic signal improvements at Broad Street and Springfield Avenue—near the Huntley Tavern—and to dredging of the Bryant Park pond were cited by Councilman Murphy.
Also being explored is a possible joint county animal control shelter on the former Houdaille Quarry property, Councilman Getzendanner said. This, he noted, could help the city save the money it currently spends by hiring the St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Organization to do animal control.
He also said the Council has invited the freeholders to hold one of their "roving meetings" in Summit.
A suggestion by Mr. Vant that Summit Council members show up "en masse" at a Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting in Elizabeth was rejected by the Councilmen present at Tuesday's forum.
Councilwoman Dickson did say, however, that, as a candidate, she had a right to know as much about county government as possible and shortly would ask for a meeting with Mr. Devaney to address her concerns.