WESTFIELD, NJ — Bill Heinbokel, head of the Mayor's Downtown Task Force, gave an update on its progress during Tuesday night’s town council meeting.
Heinbokel, who also serves as chair of the Westfield Board of Adjustment, began by explaining the limitations of Westfield’s government.
“For example,” he said, “the town cannot intercede in private business relationships, such as the relationship between a landlord and business tenant, and it cannot offer financial or tax incentives to property owners or businesses.”
But the town can offer regulatory and design incentives, he said.
The task force has been meeting with and taking suggestions from stakeholders and residents and, from the information gathered, the town has already begun to explore tangible opportunities, he said.
“For example, as a follow-up to a suggestion to incorporate wi-fi access throughout the downtown, the town met with a wireless carrier to explore the feasibility of implementing the suggestion,” Heinbokel said.
Members of the task force felt it was important to bring in outside resources that are familiar with how other communities have dealt with similar issues, so the town hired planning consultant LRK Consultants, he said. He added that the company was chosen due to its experience working with communities throughout the US.
“Specifically, LRK was brought in to perform two tasks,” Heinbokel said. “The first: To work with the town planner to review and provide analysis on current zoning ordinances specific to the downtown. The second: To conduct a walk-through and physical inspection of the downtown with the mayor and Jim Gildea, our town administrator, to provide insight and suggestions based on their experience.”
Both of these tasks are now complete, he said, and the committee is waiting to receive LRK’s official report.
Heinbokel said that a presentation to the public will be made once the task force’s plan — which will include long-term and short-term action items — is complete.
Mayor Andy Skibitsky created the volunteer task force in July in response to the paradigm shift in the retail industry that is negatively affecting Downtown Westfield. Members of the task force include town council members, the town attorney, the planning board attorney, the town planner, the president of the Westfield Board of Education, residents, real estate professionals and the executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation, Skitbitsky said.
“It is important to reiterate that the downtown is never taken for granted,” Skibitsky said. “This is why over two decades ago the town took advantage of the state law that permits creation of a special improvement district, or SID, as it is known, and why Westfield is designated as a Mainstreet community. The Downtown Westfield Corporation is the managing entity of the SID , serving essentially the economic arm of the local government. Guided by a voluntary board of trustees, the DWC board along with a staff of three works year-round to promote the downtown ... and keep it a preferred destination in the region.”