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Annual NJ Downtown Conference Explores Big Ideas for Downtowns

October 19, 2023

Statewide non-profit organization hosted industry leaders in real estate and downtown management

The premiere downtown economic development event of the year, the annual NJ Downtown Conference & Excellence Awards, hosted industry experts who provided insights into downtown management best practices, as well as development, business, and retail market trends. We also recognized downtown projects, initiatives, and leaders of excellence during an awards luncheon.

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Photo Gallery
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Welcome Remarks

Bob Zuckerman, President of Downtown New Jersey, opened the conference with a year in review for the organization and downtown revitalization. In particular, he emphasized the need for liquor license reform, an ongoing advocacy initiative of Downtown New Jersey, and expressed hope for positive movement on this critical issue during the lame-duck session of the legislature.

Bob also expressed gratitude to the 2023 NJ Downtown Conference sponsors whose generosity not only made this event possible, but also support our educational, advocacy, and programming throughout the year.

Keynote & Panel Discussion: Think Big, Act Small

As the heart of our nation’s economy, downtowns have the unique potential—and imperative—to act boldly and inclusively to rebuild stronger than before. In her keynote, Hanna Love of The Brookings Institute focused on win-win solutions that downtowns of all sizes can adopt to broaden who benefit from the productivity and prosperity that downtowns produce. These included strategies to diversify land use mixes downtowns, make them 24-hour destinations through arts, events, placemaking, and programming, and to maximize the survival of small businesses while cultivating new and diverse small business ownership downtown.

Moderated by Laura Torchio, Advisor & Director of Placemaking at NV5, our keynote speaker was joined by a panel of local experts to discuss “Think Big, Act Small” opportunities for NJ’s downtowns. Natalie Pineiro, VP of Strategic Partnerships at the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority, discussed the importance of fostering collaboration between the public sector and downtown to attract visitors and bolster small businesses. Melissa Hodge, Executive Director of South Orange Downtown, shared her experiences activating spaces through events, arts, and other programming. Nate Storring, Co-Executive Director of Project for Public Spaces, highlighted the importance of placemaking to make spaces accessible and welcoming to a wide range of users.

Panel Discussion: Big Events, Big Opportunities

New Jersey is in the heart of the country’s most important economic corridor with infrastructure, consumers, and a workforce that makes the state a destination for large-scale events. Travel is on the rise, and tourism and hospitality industries are getting back to normal. Big events are coming our way, including the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution, the World Cup, and another total eclipse – are you ready?

In this session moderated by Tara Dowdell, President of Tara Dowdell Group, panelists discussed how large-scale events can provide an economic boost and showcase downtowns, and provided insights to prepare for more visitors and harness their spending power.

Sara Cureton, Executive Director of the NJ Historical Commission provided an overview of RevolutionNJ, New Jersey’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States starting in 2026. She shared insights into how downtowns can draw visitors through local celebrations and activities. Lauren LaRusso, the Co-Host City Manager NY/NJ World Cup 2026 Host Committee, shared information about the early stages of planning for the World Cup, which will include both the big games and several practice sites throughout the state. The World Cup provides not only an opportunity to engage locals through themed programming, watch parties, and promotions but also to attract tourists to explore New Jersey’s downtowns. Christie Huus, EVP of Public Affairs & Special Projects at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, shared her prior experiences harnessing big events for local promotions in New York City. She also discussed the economic opportunities that the film industry can bring to downtown. Dawn Mackey, Executive Director of Metuchen Downtown Alliance, highlighted the importance of making big events “local”, sharing her experience organizing Addams Fest (as in Addams Family) in Westfield and the celebrations around the launch of the 2023 American Girls Doll (who hails from Metuchen). She provided valuable insights into the collaborative process to make these promotions a success.

Panel Discussion: Big Data to Tell Your Story

Downtown practitioners are increasingly called upon to make data-informed decisions and recommendations. At the same time, there is an exponential increase in the complexity, volume, and variety of data sources; accompanied by diminishing trust in unreliable, crowd-sourced, and AI digital data. In this session moderated by Chris Watson, Director of Planning and Development Services, Murphy Schiller & Wilkes, panelists discussed how best to use and communicate findings from downtown economic development data sources, and explored case studies of specific applications to illustrate real-world examples of downtowns drawing from Big Data.

Justin Copenhaver, Founder & CEO of Urality, provided an overview of the opportunities AI and data analytics provide to better understand consumer preferences, foot traffic patterns, and economic trends in their downtown. Jason Gleason, Executive Director of Montclair Center, provided real-world examples of how he used data to make the case for grant and sponsorship support for programs and initiatives. Courtenay Mercer, Principal of Mercer Planning Associates, shared her experiences harnessing qualitative feedback from businesses and consumers to drive strategic planning and decision-making. Anthony Smith, Executive Director of Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, provided additional perspective about using data to track progress and make the case for financial and technical support for community development and placemaking initiatives.

2023 NJ Downtown Excellence Awards Ceremony

Each year, Downtown New Jersey recognizes New Jersey’s best downtown projects and programs completed within the last two years, as well as individuals dedicated to downtown revitalization. Downtown Excellence awardees are considered exemplary models worthy of emulation.

Downtown New Jersey celebrated the award recipients during a luncheon ceremony at the conference. For more information about the awardees and pictures of the ceremony, visit the 2023 NJ Downtown Excellence Awards webpage.

Missed a session or the whole conference?

All of the videos, PowerPoints, and referenced resources from the conference are available to view on the conference website. Registered conference attendees can use their existing login credentials to access the videos and materials.

Didn’t register for the conference? You can still register at a reduced rate to gain access to recordings of conference sessions. More info>

Title Sponsor
Session Sponsors
Downtown Allies
Booster Club
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Economic Development Strategists, LLC
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eda tourism creating opportunity tag
mpa cmyk large
nj urban thinker
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studio 5 logo wbe
Suasion Communications Group
Advertisers & Exhibitors
  • Gates Flag & Banner Company
  • GZA GeoEnvironmental
  • Native Fields Landscaping
  • New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program
  • New Jersey Community Capital
  • Picerno-Giordano Construction
  • Yossi United Insurance Agency

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