The Heights’ Revitalization of In-town Venue Engagement
We are in the midst of the most challenging time for small businesses we have seen this century. Berkeley Heights has felt, and will continue to feel these economic pressures due to COVID-19. We need out-of-the-box thinking and strong solutions from an economic development standpoint.
However, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that downtown Berkeley Heights has had issues attracting and keeping businesses for far longer than this. Our multi-point plan, on which we would collaborate with the Economic Development Committee, is one that is focused on filling our retail properties, including new spaces that are part of the development projects coming on board over the next couple of years, and giving owners some support in reducing turnover.
When our local businesses succeed, Berkeley Heights succeeds.
We can do this by accomplishing these five goals: Supporting Proprietors, Incentivizing New Businesses, Creating Collective Visibility, Reducing Empty Storefronts and Building Community Connectivity.
As the leader of a small business that is struggling during this time, Bret is keenly aware of the challenges that our local business owners face. Whether it’s been dealing with regulations around store openings, short-term supply chain issues or navigating the CARES Act, our businesses are facing adversity that has not been seen in our lifetime.
But while some of these short-term struggles will not last, there will always be new ones. In order to help our business owners navigate continually changing economic environments and work together to create long-term sustainability, we propose the creation of a business mentorship program where our local entrepreneurs can both share resources as a community and learn new ways to make their businesses successful.
Incentivizing New Businesses
There’s nothing better for a town’s economics than to have its residents opening businesses of their own. In order to help facilitate more of this, we will look at potential new legislation to create tax incentives and other motivators for Berkeley Heights residents that open stores, restaurants or other retail shops within our community. Sometimes a small push in the right direction is all that a start-up enterprise needs in order to have long-term success, and investing in Berkeley Heights this way is a win-win for our entire town.
Creating Collective Visibility
One of the economic issues this pandemic has shown us that will stick for a long time is that businesses need to have a strong virtual footprint in order to be successful, regardless of what they sell or offer. The way we interact with stores and restaurants is changing and as a town we can add value and both encourage our residents to shop locally and make it easy for those not living in Berkeley Heights to know and find our businesses.
We can put Berkeley Heights-based companies on stronger footing by creating a centralized website and social media home where residents and neighbors can see all new developments in our town’s restaurants, shops and service providers, and make purchases online easily. We can take advantage of the expanded online presence and partner with the Downtown Beautification Committee in order to align this with the ShopBH initiative.
Reducing Empty Storefronts
One of the impediments to Berkeley Heights having a more cohesive downtown is empty storefronts, particularly long-term spaces that have remained unoccupied. They are both unattractive and do not offer services for residents. Property owners have the luxury of sitting on vacant commercial spaces because they can take advantage of tax write offs, and we pay the price. They can set rental prices at the extreme high end of the market because they see benefit regardless of whether the storefront is occupied or not. We will explore ways to encourage property owners to keep their retail spaces occupied in order to shift the economic model to favor residents and local businesses.
Additionally, some zoning regulations around downtown Berkeley Heights are out-of-date and need to be reviewed and revised. From a list of approved businesses that reads straight out of 1990 to the wide variety of zoning types, it creates unnecessary obstacles for businesses to open. These zoning restrictions are not either set up in a way that makes sense today or aligns with what our residents want from our local businesses, as per the master plan survey conducted last year. We will support the recommendation of the Township Planner and develop a more comprehensive zoning plan that will stop inhibiting our ability to create unified downtown hubs.
Building Community Connectivity
This year has shown an outpouring of support for Berkeley Heights local businesses as they struggle in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As residents, we know how much of a part of the community they are, through sponsorships of activities and donations for fundraisers. And whether it’s the funding provided through Berkeley Heights Business & Civic or residents simply buying gift certificates to their favorite in-town restaurants or shops as placeholders for future business, we’ve seen our town give back.
We want to build off the increased bond between our residents and the business community in general and create an organized and public micro-funding program in Berkeley Heights. This is a great way to encourage both creative ideas for businesses and storefronts in town and get buy-in from those who would make up its consumer base. Participants pitch ideas to residents at a community dinner, and the attendees vote at the end of the night on the best idea. The winning project then gets to use the donations collected from the attendees to start funding for their endeavor. An additional benefit of these community dinners is to spark conversation and inclusion across all of Berkeley Heights as we collectively invest in our future.