Democratic Candidates Applaud Downtown Revitalization Initiatives

MADISON – In a prepared statement, Democratic candidates for Madison Borough Council, Council President Carmela Vitale of Myrtle Avenue and DDC Commissioner John Hoover of Overhill Drive stated that “if elected, one of their highest priorities will be the implementation of a balanced, solution-driven revitalization plan for Madison’s commercial districts, including our historic downtown business district.”

The candidates observed, “One of Madison’s most significant assets is the downtown business district. The panorama of historic buildings creates an atmosphere generally associated with small towns rather than bedroom suburbs, and our residents clearly prefer it that way.

Unfortunately, as retail transactions continue to move to the internet, brick and mortar retail establishments are finding it increasingly difficult to remain viable – merchants in our downtown included. Against this background the level of concern over the long-term viability of our downtown escalated last year when there were an unusual number of vacancies in several highly visible locations.

In response, both the Downtown Development Commission (DDC) and the Borough Council felt that it was time to examine our downtown comprehensively with the objective of making it a more financially stable and attractive location. It was decided that an outside consulting firm was needed to provide actionable recommendations on what should be done to improve the situation. A joint Downtown Revitalization Committee was formed and Urbanomics, a well-regarded consulting firm with the relevant expertise, was hired. Both of us were very supportive of this decision, and John served on the committee.”

“Previous councils have seen the need for professional help and have contracted with consulting firms to help them develop plans to strengthen our commercial districts,” stated Vitale. “For example the 1980 Project for Public Spaces (PPS) study recommended the creation of a downtown farmers’ market, hiring a downtown manager, adding downtown sidewalk amenities such as benches, waste receptacles, and shade trees, and seeking historic district status for the downtown business district. Many of these recommendations were obviously implemented. The most recent engagement took place in 2007, which again recommended hiring a full-time downtown manager, which the mayor and council chose not to do. It has been ten years since that study was conducted and a lot has happened since then. In 2007 most Madison storeowners saw the nearby malls as their major competitors. Now much of the competitive pressure is coming from a very different source: online retailers like Amazon.

Urbanomics’ final report was presented at a well- attended public meeting before the Council on May 22 and made available on Rosenet the following day. The Revitalization Committee has since reviewed it and begun prioritizing the recommendations. It is anticipated that over the next year or so many of the recommendations will be initiated if not completely implemented.”

John Hoover noted, “A key recommendation was that we need a full time downtown manager who would also have responsibility for all commercial activities including corporate as well retail regardless of location in Madison. This time there is unanimous agreement that we should make this a full-time paid position. A search committee is already at work on this project.

Some of the other recommendations for the governing body included making borough zoning rules easier for new businesses to rent existing, vacant storefronts in the downtown district. On September 11, the Borough Council unanimously approved an ordinance developed by the Planning Board that modifies the borough’s building occupancy code. Under the ordinance, a change in building use or occupancy within the district will no longer automatically require a site plan if the new tenant meets certain reasonable size and use requirements. As Councilwoman Astri Baillie observed, ‘This will streamline the zoning process for small business owners, while still protecting the character of the district.’”

Vitale and Hoover continued, “Once the downtown manager is in place several of the other recommendations can be initiated including the branding and marketing of Madison. Although this is something we currently do, there was unanimous agreement at the committee that we needed a more professional effort at design and implementation including signage, logos etc. Urbanomics has also made several interesting and potentially significant recommendations regarding parking downtown. In addition, they have offered ways to improve the appearance of our streetscapes. Many of the particular steps that will need to be taken will depend on at least some of the work pertaining to branding and marketing.

We believe that the council did the right thing in supporting the hiring of an outside consulting firm. Although we are not in agreement with everything in their report, they presented a logical framework in which to analyze our situation as well as many useful recommendations and ideas. As candidates for office, we are committed to ensuring that the borough fulfills the objective the committee embraced at the outset. This study will be a blue print for action and not just another study to put on the shelf. We have gotten this far because of the volunteers who have brought their energy, expertise and time to the DDC, the Council and the committee on the Revitalization of Downtown. We look forward to moving on to next steps with everyone’s help.”