This event, hosted by Downtown New Jersey, NJTOD.org, and NJ TRANSIT’s Transit Friendly Planning (TFP) Program brought together a panel of experts from public and private entities to discuss their experiences in attracting and retaining local businesses in downtowns across New Jersey. Retail businesses are essential to the life and vibrancy of Main Street and TOD alike, but attracting and also retaining these businesses, especially local businesses, can be challenging in uncertain and turbulent economic times. In recent years, many communities have taken creative approaches to adapt to rapidly changing retail trends to ensure retail spaces are filled and stay open. Panelists shared regional best practices on how to attract and retain local businesses, maximize the use of ground-floor commercial space in TOD, better connect transit and local retail through wayfinding, and create unique community events in an effort to revitalize downtowns.
The panelists, experts working in the private and public sectors discussed best practices for enhancing downtown areas. The speakers recognized the wide variety of town and business areas available in New Jersey and drew upon their experiences working in urban, suburban, and rural locations, as well as instances of new development, redevelopment, and existing properties.
Mr. Buehler kicked off the discussion with an introduction to the idea of prosperity values–values people use when choosing a business or town: economic, place, social, and civic. Mr. Buehler emphasizes that economic values are the most important – as they encompass the details of what you can see and touch. In order to promote prosperity values, you must be stakeholder driven, you have to create tangible change, and learn from other communities.
Marta Villa, Senior Vice President at CBRE, specializes in consulting for retail merchandising in downtowns for the private sector. She views downtowns through the lens of retailers and what makes for a successful retail environment. She discussed the anatomy of trade areas, concepts in leasing, site analytics, determining the right amount of retail, merchandising, and how to attract tenants. Ms. Villa highlighted how the anatomy of the trade area can be determined by factors such as natural boundaries, parking, and the distance to competing retail destinations. She drew attention to several concepts in leasing including street location, circulation within a town, fixed building size, anchor store placement, and leasing plans. When discussing site analytics, she focused on several topics such as location, access, and ceiling heights, and discussed the importance of using data when making location decisions. Ms. Villa also raised the issue of merchandising, which she defines in terms of how different stores and other retail properties are placed together.
Chris Colley, a Principal at Topology, advanced the conversation by focusing on the role that municipal planning plays in promoting retail. Mr. Colley discussed the importance of “first floors” when designing active and attractive leasing locations. He highlighted how not every downtown area needs to feature retail. He also discussed how municipalities should review and update code definitions to meet current thinking about appropriate uses — such as allowing tattoo shops — as well as how parking should not be a community’s main priority.
Melissa Hodge, Executive Director of South Orange Downtown (SOD), discussed the importance of utilizing the assets that your city has to offer. She illustrated how SOD used events, promotions, advocacy, business support, and beautification efforts to draw visitors to and promote businesses in South Orange, a New Jersey-designated Transit Village community.
Jim Donio, Town Advocate for Hammonton, discussed the importance of design as well as collaboration amongst a wide variety of stakeholders in his town’s efforts to maintain and promote retail. He offers two case studies on how Hammonton used historic preservation techniques and the redesign of existing buildings to enhance the town’s center. He also discussed how Hammonton has worked with local businesses — including those owned and operated by non-English speaking residents — to update their branding and interior and exterior design to attract new customers.
The panelists also answered questions from the audience.
Welcome & Introduction:
- Stephanie DiPetrillo, RU-VTC / NJTOD.org
- Courtenay Mercer, Executive Director, Downtown New Jersey
- Chris Colley, Principal, Topology
- Jim Donio, Town Advocate, Town of Hammonton
- Melissa Hodge, Executive Director, South Orange Downtown
- Marta Person Villa, Senior Vice President of Retail Services, CBRE
- Jef Buehler, Municipal & District Revitalization Manager, NJ Business Action Center