What makes a downtown work?

I have spent a lot of time actively listening to the residents concerns and questions for our downtown development. I have heard two common themes: Why don’t we have any great stores or reasons to go to our downtown? And why can’t we be like Maplewood or Montclair?

Developing a viable town center involves more than just the town; it involves a real partnership with the residents, developers, landlords, existing businesses, potential retail anchor brands and the governing body.  In my 15 years of retail industry experience, I have come together with all stakeholders to make the plan for development. But beyond that, success was predicated on the planning that took place before and after in order to properly ensure the vision for the town is executed.  In my professional career, I managed global brands worth more than $365 million dollars. I know what it takes to get these businesses in and I know that when you are planning a downtown, a village center, or a mall a critical component is making sure retail is stabilized.

Step 1: Pre-planning: Some residents will wish for our town to have the quaint, charming village feel of Maplewood Avenue, others wish for it to have the hustle and bustle of Montclair and others are hoping for us to connect more to Seton Hall University and develop a Princeton-like college town center. We have an identity crisis!

The disparity in vision for the town starts with an exercise in defining our identity, as our own, not in relation to others. I believe that South Orange is truly unique. There are elements of our history, our historical assets, our diverse community and our position as a transportation hub for NJ that make us special. We need to identify those assets and articulate our town message so we are all speaking the same language and then realize a cohesive vision for the village. In addition to ensuring we are all on the same page, it defines the style our town development should take from an aesthetic perspective. Are we going to be a walking town? Then we need the development to facilitate that. Variances on parking, without the appropriate safety measures for Uber drop offs, and Valet are short sighted. We need a vision of the store mix and types of brands that we want. This vital process needs to be guided, but does not need to take years to complete.

Step 2: Get the aesthetics right:  A renovated, updated, clean downtown with a consistent style is the first impression a visitor has when coming to our town to do business. First impressions matter to the psychological experience of getting someone through the door. If window fronts are dark, not clean or small, people are less likely to go inside. If signage, awnings, and architectural details are not maintained, missing or inconsistent, people are less likely to walk the town and will likely go to their destination and leave. I have successfully spent 15 years in my retail career honing aesthetics and the integral part they play on successful sales goals. I have spent 3 years building an Interior Design and Retail Development company here in South Orange, which is all about project management, planning and relationship building.  But, the end result is the one people see the most and that is the results of my innate ability to make aesthetics tie to functional goals for my clients.

Step 3: Bring the right mix of retail for our town: Are we a shopping destination or a mixed-used retail center? How many services vs. entertainment attractions do we need? Once we determine what we need in town, we need to actively pursue bringing in those businesses that support the vision plan. I have those connections to the retail world, to meet with top executives, who I used to negotiate with for previous brands, and show them the vision and value of South Orange. I also have experience with merchandising and retail mix plans, so I understand how to take the brand vision of South Orange and articulate that into a tangible plan of what each space and store should reflect for our town to be successful.

We can have a strong internet-resilient town center, but we need someone who has the experience and can understand the challenges and opportunities the retail world has faced in the last 15 years. I am the only candidate for the Board of Trustees who has retail development experience. I spent my career during the height of an evolving and rapidly changing retail industry - massive store closures, web stores redefining brands, experiential retailing evolving to what it is today, etc. I have lived it with first-hand knowledge of the failures and strengths of some of the biggest names in the business. I will bring that wealth of knowledge, know-how and relationships to breathe new life into our town development. If you want a downtown that is vibrant, feels cohesive, and is well planned, please vote for me May 9th.