Letters to the Editor

Mayor of Westfield's 2017 State of the Town Address

Mayor Andy Skibitsky Credits: Jackie Lieberman

Editor's note: Mayor Andy Skibitsky gave his annual state of the town address during the town council's annual organization meeting Jan. 3. To read more about that meeting, click here.

Good evening and welcome to the annual organization meeting of the Westfield Town Council. It’s good to see all the residents, our families and friends, former council members, volunteers and employees who are here this evening. Thank you all for coming and a special thank you to Rabbi Sagal for delivering the invocation.

It is always important to recognize that Westfield’s form of government is indeed unique. Unlike most municipalities, the town council and I serve essentially as volunteers, receiving a symbolic paycheck of one dollar per year that, in accordance with long-standing tradition, does not get cashed. The town council and I receive no other monetary compensation, no expense budget and no benefits. It is my understanding that Westfield is the largest municipality in the state that seats an unpaid governing body. 

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Of course, though we are not compensated financially, we are well compensated in another, more important way - by having the distinct honor of serving the people of this great town.  I’m sure I speak for everyone on the dais when I say that we serve out of a genuine love of our town and appreciation for how fortunate we are to be live here.

And so, to the members of the 2016 Town Council, I would like to thank you for your time, your talents and for all your efforts on behalf of your respective wards. I want to be sure to thank former Councilwoman Vicki Kimmins, who resigned this past year when her job took her to another state, for her many years of service. Thank you to Councilman Donnelly for stepping in to fill Councilwoman Kimmins’ seat and congratulations on your November election to the council!

To the 2017 Council members, your service is a tribute to your selfless commitment to the community, and I am proud to serve with you. I trust we will find the coming year to be inspiring, enriching, exhausting and immensely rewarding as we work together to keep this town moving forward without compromising its colonial character and cherished heritage.

To the families of all the Town Council members – I know you sacrifice family time with your loved ones when they are busy tending to the town’s business, so thank you for your support and for your community spirit as well.

To Westfield’s first lady, Debbie, my ever-patient and supportive wife, and our children – Drew, Hope, Shane and Troy – thank you for your love and continued encouragement.

Earlier in this meeting, many citizens were appointed to serve as volunteers on the various boards and commissions of the town. Let me express my deepest appreciation to all of you who have agreed to dedicate your time and talents to serve your fellow residents. 

And to all those volunteers who just completed their terms, thank you for your service.

To the department heads, many of whom are here tonight - for many years now I have witnessed first-hand your commitment to your work and, most importantly, to the people of this town. You continue to represent and advocate for your respective departments with dedication, professionalism, and determination and I want you to know that your efforts, as well as those of the employees in your charge, are recognized and appreciated. Your contributions are no doubt part of what makes this town so extraordinary.

It’s important that I pause here to commend our public safety officials – police, fire and voluntary first aid squad – as well as our public works department for the amazing and oftentimes invisible job that they do day in and day out.  Take, for example, the blizzard of 2016.  Our police chief and police administration had the foresight long before a blizzard was ever forecast to acquire surplus Department of Defense Hummers that are able to get around town under the absolute worst weather conditions and are now equipped with plows. 

Our mobile command center was in service so that had there been a power outage, 911 communications would not be compromised. Our fire department readied its fire apparatus and had extra fire fighters stationed at both fire houses so they were prepared to respond to any emergency. The department of public works put every possible piece of equipment into service and plowed for over 30 hours straight under dire conditions at times.

This is why the town council and I listen when our public safety professionals and public works professionals advise us of their needs. They are requesting equipment, not for themselves, but for the safety of the residents. This past year the town was able to provide the fire department with a new pumper truck, the police department with all new digital radios to improve communications, and the department of public works with four new pickup trucks with plows and salt spreaders and two new Mack trucks with plows. Providing the needed equipment so our first responders are properly prepared remains a priority of mine.

And now, as mayor, I am honored to deliver my twelfth state of the town address.      

The state of the own is oftentimes associated with the town’s fiscal health, so let me begin there.

Since the great recession, this council and the town’s professionals have worked very hard to ensure that Westfield preserves its strong and stable financial position while keeping an eye on the town’s future needs. As I have highlighted in the past, there is perhaps no better evidence of this strong and stable position than the AAA rating assigned by Standard & Poor’s.

S & P describes the town’s financial position in the following terms, and I quote:

  • “strong management”,
  • “strong budgetary performance”,
  • “very strong budgetary flexibility”,
  • “very strong liquidity” and
  • “strong debt and contingent liability profile.”

Certainly such an endorsement of the town’s fiscal management by an impartial source is reassuring news to our residents. It is particularly noteworthy that Westfield is one of only 17 of the 565 municipalities in the state to carry the S & P triple-A rating.

The state of the town can also be measured in the numerous awards and various accolades it has earned over time, with new ones added every year.

In naming “2016’s Best Small Cities in America,” analysts from the personal finance website “WalletHub” compared nearly 1,300 U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 30 key indicators of livability.  Westfield topped the list for “Economic Health” and overall was listed in the top one percent of the best small cities in America. 

In its September/October 2016 edition, Industry magazine refers to Westfield as “One of the Garden State's most vibrant and alluring shopping destinations, this town still manages to retain its quaint village appeal and colonial character.”

In a September 2016 feature article, The New York Times describes the appeal of Westfield as: “offer[ing]characteristics typically associated with urban living — a bustling downtown, a vibrant cultural scene and good transportation options — along with many benefits of suburban living, like attractive homes, well-regarded schools and a sense of community.”  

In almost all of the accolades the town has received, the downtown is mentioned as a significant factor adding to the town’s overall appeal and liveliness.  I don’t think there’s been a talk that I have given about the greatness of our town that I haven’t emphasized the value of our downtown. The economic benefit to the community is obvious.  Westfield’s downtown, however, is more than just an economic benefit – it is truly a social and cultural meeting place that contributes to the heartbeat of the community.  This is why I have always advocated for “Westfield first.”

In last year’s state of the town address exactly one year ago today, I spoke of the rapidly changing retail paradigm and the need to attract a regular influx of people to visit, shop, dine and use the personal and professional services in our central business district in order to keep our downtown vibrant. I announced plans for three new development projects within the downtown, all representing significant private investments in our future. One of these projects is rapidly approaching completion, another is underway, and the other is near ground breaking.

To be clear, the importance of our downtown has never been taken for granted. This is why over two decades ago, the town created and continues to support the Special Improvement District, or SID. The Downtown Westfield Corporation, or DWC, is the management entity of the SID, essentially the economic development arm of the local government. The DWC is guided by a volunteer board appointed by the town council whose composition includes two merchants, two downtown property owners, two residents and a council member.

The board and a staff of three strive to keep Westfield a preferred destination and the center of community life by supporting existing businesses, encouraging the establishment of new enterprises and supporting cultural activities that complement existing stores and services.

To be sure, the town has already acted to attract the appropriate residential development and businesses to our downtown. By amending cumbersome regulations and negotiating with developers to meet our obligations, we paved the way for a renowned restaurant such as Addam’s Tavern to come to town and for developers to construct high-end residential units.

The town council, the town’s professional staff and the DWC have been keeping a close watch on the various retail, economic and cultural trends as well as the changes in demographics that affect our town and the downtown in particular. We need to know what forces are at play nationally, regionally and locally in order to gauge their impact and formulate an appropriate and effective response. For example, consider the following:

The changing retail paradigm is wide-ranging. Nationally, big box stores are closing. In 2016, Walmart announced plans to close 150 locations throughout the country, Sears announced it would close 78 Kmart and Sears outlets and Macy’s is closing 100 stores.

Even malls are suffering. According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in suburban redevelopment: “Of the roughly 1,200 enclosed malls in the U.S., around one-third are dying.”

Demographics are changing. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) have passed Baby Boomers as the largest living generation in U.S. history and as a generation, have yet to reach their prime spending years.  Nearly 65 percent of Millennials are renters. According to a report by Together North Jersey, “Millennials’ choices about where to live and work will shape communities for years to come.”

Walkable downtowns are desirable. Developers, investors and planners are recognizing the growing desire of not only Millennials, but seniors as well, to live where they do not have to always rely on a car.

E-commerce has increased steadily in the past decade.  For example, Amazon Prime recently reported that it shipped more than 1 billion items around the world this holiday season, more than five times its sales during the same period last year.

Restaurants are important drivers in retail. In December of 2016, Collier’s International reported on the rising role of food in retail: “People are dining out more often at all price points, new restaurant and food concepts are exploding and opportunities are being created for retail centers of all types. Retail centers are increasingly creating vibrant and lively areas anchored by a collection of food offerings.”

In view of these trends and changes in demographics and the effect they are having on our downtown, I formed the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force this past year. With the goal of developing a forward looking plan that strengthens and promotes economic development and a sustainable business environment for the town’s central business district, the task force has been directed to assess the changing business environment, review the current conditions and any limitations imposed by the town’s existing ordinances, and understand the specific wants and concerns of the business community and our citizens.

The committee has reached out to a variety of stakeholders, meeting with merchants, property owners, commercial realtors, residential realtors, residents, business owners, and community leaders. To be sure, this must be a collaborative effort as the stakeholders not only stand to benefit from a healthy central business district, they also share in the responsibility to make sure they are part of the solution and not a source of the problem.

The local government alone cannot reverse global trends or changes in demographics. However, the town can and will continue to spearhead the movement to identify concrete, sustainable actions to keep our downtown vibrant. While municipalities in New Jersey. are restrained in their capacity to offer financial incentives to businesses (tax policy is dictated at the state level), municipalities can offer regulatory and design incentives. To that end, the task force has embarked on a detailed study of all ordinances and processes within the town’s control to see if such incentives may be implemented.

Please keep in mind that the work of the task force will take time as we do not want to fall victim to the illusion of a quick fix, and we need to be very careful about unintended consequences. As Main Street America warns, those downtowns that have made cosmetic changes or tried to imitate malls ultimately failed because they did not address the fundamental problem – shifting market preferences.

The changes in the retail sector are complex and seismic. Therefore, the research and analysis phase must be comprehensive as we look both inward at ourselves and outward at the experiences of other communities across the country. To do this right, there simply is no quick fix. Instead, the town will proceed systematically and strategically.  If in the course of our work an adjustment is identified that can be addressed quickly, we will certainly do so.

Though we face challenges ahead that are not unique just to Westfield, please be assured that there is much to be optimistic about.

1. Despite the changing retail paradigm, Westfield is still a premier destination for dining, shopping, arts and entertainment.

2.The town has the SID and its management entity, the DWC, in place to promote the interests of the downtown.

3. Trader Joe’s was eager to return to Westfield and reopened less than a year after it was forced to shut down, and business is booming.

4. Addam’s Tavern, an upscale farm-to-table restaurant, invested millions in the building it leases. In the short time that it has been open it has already established itself as a unique dining destination in a lively and fun setting.

5. More than one-third of downtown’s retailers and restaurants have been doing business there for 25 years or more.

6. The spending power in the Westfield community is strong. The Star Ledger recently identified Westfield as one of “20 NJ towns with the highest incomes,” showing an increase in median income of almost four percent from pre- to post-recession.

7. Residents and commercial entities are investing heavily in their properties. In 2016, the value of construction in Westfield was over $89 million.

8. Public projects that will have a positive impact on the downtown are moving forward.

  • The restoration of the Mindowaskin Park pond is underway.
  • Reconfiguration of the intersection of North Ave. and Elm St.
  • Improvements to Parking Lot 7 (across from the Post Office)
  • The installation of new meter heads that will expand the methods of payment.

9. There is a growing desire among Millennials and seniors to live where they do not have to rely on a car. Walkable downtowns like Westfield’s are desirable.

10. The entire town council and the town’s professional staff, including the town planner, who brings his experience and previous successes in Montclair and Asbury Park to the table, are fully committed to the goals of the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force. And to provide a fresh set of eyes on our downtown and minimize any innate biases or preconceived notions, the town has engaged the services of an outside development consultant.

11. Yes, there are more store-front vacancies than we are accustomed to, and the town will do all that it can to address any conditions within its control, but keep in mind that we are building on a very strong foundation and successful heritage. There are far more strengths and positives than there are weaknesses and negatives. It may take a little time, but I am confident that we will emerge from this readjustment period just as strong if not stronger than ever.

In addition to our continued focus on the downtown area, the town completed many projects in 2016 and have many planned for this year that will enhance the quality of life for our residents. For example, over 500 new trees have been planted in the public right of way in 2016. New, sustainable landscaping has been planted in many public areas around town. A public works supervisor has been assigned to the downtown to oversee beautification efforts there. New bathrooms will be built at Memorial Park, replacing porta-potties, and brand new bleachers will be installed at all the municipal park playing fields.

As we embark on a new year, I remain committed to enhancing public safety, working with the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and advancing quality of life measures to the fullest extent our resources permit. I deeply appreciate all of the support this council has shown towards these initiatives.

In closing, let’s remember that the true “state of the town” and what really defines us as a community are the people – the people who, with great pride, call Westfield their hometown. It’s about the hundreds if not thousands of volunteers who give so generously of their time and talents to coach and guide our youngsters in sports, scouting and other activities. 

It’s about our senior citizens, many of whom contributed to making Westfield what it is today and now stay to be close to the families they have raised. It’s about all of the hard-working merchants, professionals, restaurateurs and proprietors who have invested in Westfield and chosen it as their business home. 

Thank you to each and every one of you for your contribution to making Westfield the truly unique and remarkable place that it is. We have so much to be grateful for.

Thank you, and God bless you.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor.

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