Downtowns and malls throughout the nation are struggling with how to address online retail. We all shop online and that trend is only going to increase. But a vibrant downtown is not only vital for landlords and their business tenants -- it is important for every residential property owner in our community. The greater the share of the city budget that is covered by commercial taxes, the lower the share that must be covered by residential taxes. Moreover, a walkable and historic downtown is attractive to homebuyers and works to shore up property values.
Summit has a great downtown. But there is room for improvement. We are concerned that there are many vacant storefronts, and we have an overabundance of certain kinds of businesses. The time is now to be proactive, rather than reactive. Here are some ideas for meeting this challenge head-on.
*Create an Economic Development Committee on Common Council. The Economic Development committee will allow Council members to work with City staff to identify policies that will create a business friendly climate in Summit. Right now, issues that affect our downtown are addressed by several Council committees. Many issues are not addressed at all because they do not fall within the purview of any Council committee. Consolidating this function within one committee will ensure that Council focuses on ways to improve our downtown and our neighborhood businesses.
*Look at tax incentives that allow commercial property owners to benefit from filled storefronts. Currently, property owners can seek tax abatements for unleased spaces. These incentives should not allow property owners to benefit from tax abatements while stores remain vacant for months on end. Many commercial properties in the downtown are owned by family trusts. These trusts use the losses on vacant properties to offset gains on other properties in an overall real estate portfolio. We will evaluate these policies and look for ways to ensure that our tax policies encourage commercial landowners to fill vacancies expeditiously.
*Create a business concierge to identify new businesses and help them get started in Summit. This has been a successful strategy in other communities, including Chestnut Hill in Pennsylvania. The concierge would work with Summit Downtown, Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, commercial brokers, and retail representatives to identify new businesses and to ensure that Summit has a mix of commercial establishments. The concierge would also guide new businesses through the permitting process here in Summit, working closely with the City’s Code Administration office.
*Streamline the permitting process for new businesses. There are several things that can be done to make the permitting process go more quickly, while ensuring compliance with codes. First, certain categories of business permits could be granted on an expedited basis. Second, while Council has already approved putting the permitting process online, we want this implemented as soon as possible, and after implementation, we should re-evaluate, on a quarterly basis, how well the system is working, and make necessary improvements.
*Encourage residential use of upper floors of downtown buildings. Mixed-use buildings allow for residents to live in the downtown and use the first-floor commercial establishments more frequently. Buildings that allow only for office use create at least two problems. First, a parking crunch is created if all the employees come to work during the daytime and leave at night. Second, when employees leave at night, the downtown becomes quiet and thus, less inviting for others. We have all been to communities that essentially shut down after 5 p.m., and that is not the type of town we want to be. While we do not aspire to be a bustling metropolis, we do want a thriving place to go to in the evening.
*Utilize public spaces in the downtown for cultural events. Lyric Park and the Promenade Park are ideal locations for live musicians and entertainers in the evenings and on weekends.
*Consider changes in the Development Regulations Ordinance (DRO) to allow for entertainment uses in the downtown. One thing that online retail cannot replace is a communal entertainment experience. With the departure of our movie theater, our community lost a business that attracted residents of all ages to our downtown. We need to set policies that will attract businesses that provide entertainment options to Summit. Currently, our first-floor regulations restrict certain types of businesses, such as arcades, escape rooms, or cooking studios. We should look into changing those regulations in ways that will enhance our downtown while preserving the character of our community.
By being proactive, we can move Summit forward.
Beth Little (At-Large), Matt Gould (Ward 1), and Marjorie Fox (Ward 2) are Democratic candidates for Summit Common Council.