Downtown Westfield. Not only is it the centerpiece of our wonderful town, but it is also a source of great pride, a vibrant meeting place for friends and families and a vital shopping district for our residents and visitors alike.
And so it comes as no surprise that virtually every citizen of Westfield is united in wanting to keep our downtown thriving. But how? The answer, in my opinion, is re-electing Mayor Andy Skibitsky, a proven leader with a plan that is already showing promising results.
The truth is the struggle over retail vacancies is not a local problem; it is a national crisis. (Just this week, I am hosting a panel of executives from Nike, Boxed.com and other retail experts to dimensionalize the scope of the problem at Advertising Week in NYC.) How challenging is it? In just the first six months of 2017, over 350 significant retailers filed for bankruptcy. Many national chains, like Coldwater Creek, filed for Chapter 7, leaving in their wake large footprints that are more difficult to rent. Anchor stores are closing, including the Sears on Route 22, and just last week, Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11. Let’s face it; we are in the middle of a retail apocalypse.
Amazon is not the lone culprit. Retailers everywhere have cannibalized their brick & mortar sales through their own e-tailing sites, and the rise of disruptor brands like Warby-Parker, Boxed.com, Casper and more create pressure on Mom & Pop retailers, not just large chains.
But a more daunting challenge is not a change in technology, but a change in consumers. Millennials (Adults 19-36), are 80 million strong (20 percent larger than Gen X), and they prefer experiences to material goods. So it’s not just where they’re buying; it’s what they’re buying.
That’s why the changes being made by Mayor Skibitsky, the town council, the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and the DWC are so critical to our future. No one can stop corporations closing stores or filing for bankruptcy, nor can any leader dictate what landlords may charge for rent. What policy-makers can do is change regulations and ordinances to foster rapid change; and that’s exactly what is happening right now.
Mayor Skibitsky and the town council acted quickly to start implementing many of the more than 50 concrete recommendations made by the Task Force. (If you haven’t read the report, please do! You’ll find it on the town website, westfieldnj.gov). Changes include altering Land Use Ordinances to:
- Streamline Permitted Use approvals to make it easier for new stores to open
- More public space, including an experimental “parklet” that has worked well in other towns
- Allowing tenants to share space, creating experiential shopping opportunities in larger footprint spaces
- Adding parking spaces and creating 15-minute zones
- Decreasing hours for metered parking
- And altering antiquated liquor laws that allowed for improved service at Ferraro’s and the opening of Addams Tavern.
Many more changes are coming soon, including updated meters, allowing for suitable office use of ground floor units which are not conducive to retail, allowing walk-up windows, permitting craft beer microbreweries and paint-and-sip establishments, opening up the use of rooftops and basements and continued improvements to parking, traffic flow, and pedestrian spaces.
Opponents of the mayor are painting a doom-and-gloom picture of our town and particularly downtown, which suits their purposes, but is neither accurate nor constructive. As a registered Democrat, I object to using frustration over national politics to confuse voters over local issues. And so do, I think, most Westfielders. Maybe that’s why nearly all of the dozen or so downtown business owners I’ve spoken to personally are supporting Mayor Skibitsky in November.
This is a critical juncture for our town and our downtown in particular. That’s why I’m so proud to be the husband of Mayor Skibitsky’s campaign manager. Because, regardless of party, we need proven leadership, a positive attitude, a supportive and neighborly environment, and — importantly — we need to continue the excellent work already underway to keep Westfield vibrant and thriving.