By Desirée Taylor
After taking a hit from the recession and ongoing competition from big national chain retailers, small downtowns are making a come back in communities across the state. Among them is Boonton, in Morris County. Ten years ago, the store front vacancy rate there was more than 10 percent. Today, less than 3 percent are unoccupied. Karen Korinda, Executive Director of Main Street Boonton, said much of this success can be attributed to the state assistance provided through the Main Street New Jersey program. “We’ve gotten graphic help and we’ve gotten facade improvement help through consultants,” said Korinda. “They don’t provide money. It’s through consultants that provide the services.”
New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs oversees the Main Street New Jersey program which began in 1990. There are currently 25 designated municipalities participating in the program. The program helps municipalities improve the economy, appearance and image of their central business districts through the organization of local citizens and resources. It’s not a grant program. The state provides training and direct services such as facade renderings, architectural assistance, business retention and recruitment, marketing and branding assistance. “We’re all about leveraging local assets,” said Jef Buehler, State Coordinator of Main Street New Jersey.
The economic impact of this program appears to be significant. From 1990 to 2011, state officials say the Main Street New Jersey program has leveraged more than $1 billion in private investment and an additional $228 million in public investment. And officials claim it has fostered the net creation of more than 8,000 full time jobs.
Westfield, one of the first communities to be selected into the Main Street New Jersey program, is considered a model of downtown revitalization. In 2004, the Union County municipality won the Great American Main Street Award and the America in Bloom award in 2010. Sherry Cronin, the Executive Director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation said in the past 11 years there has been more than $11 million in investment in Westfield. “It takes a lot of effort all of the time … you can’t make a one time investment,” said Cronin. “You’ve got to be working with business owners, shops and restaurants to help them … and the property owners to keep up their investment and show that return on their investment.”