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Downtown Revitalization Survey Shows Need for Towns To Be More Proactive

November 19th, 2014 by

Changing demographics provide an opportunity to strengthen downtowns.

Downtown Bordentown. Photo courtesy of JGSC Group.

Downtown Bordentown. Photo courtesy of JGSC Group.

The results of a survey of those responsible for downtown revitalization in New Jersey’s municipalities show that, while various functions of downtown revitalization are widely considered important among respondents, far fewer of those respondents believe their municipalities are effective at doing them.

The survey, administered jointly by New Jersey Future and the JGSC Group, was sent to at least one representative at each of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities. Representatives from approximately 25 percent of those municipalities responded to the survey.

Among the things most important to downtown revitalization were attracting, retaining and improving the available retail (all ranked 4.4 or higher out of 5). However, respondents gave themselves a maximum of 3.6 out of 5 for how effective they thought their towns were at those things, including a 2.9 rating on their ability to fill vacant storefronts.

Respondents indicated they were better at being reactive and following a prescribed process than they are at developing and leading the implementation of a vision for their communities. They ranked being proactive in revitalization a 4.4 out of 5 in terms of importance, but their effectiveness at it only a 3.6 out of 5. Most are on track for their master plan updates, but it wasn’t clear how many were making significant changes to make revitalization easier. Less than one-third of respondents used procedural incentives (28 percent) or financial incentives (32 percent) for downtown revitalization, and only 39 percent of respondents indicated they had applied for grant funding for revitalization projects. Only 20 percent had created a marketing plan and even fewer were implementing a marketing plan.

Survey results also showed that municipalities placed a lower value on attracting non-retail commercial development, including light manufacturing, even though increasing the tax base was ranked the most important reason to engage in redevelopment. Additionally, attracting residential development was ranked low on respondents’ list of reasons for downtown revitalization, even though having residents downtown is a key factor in attracting and retaining retail and restaurants (“retail follows rooftops”).

While many towns are still struggling economically, thoughtful and strategic downtown revitalization can provide a path toward prosperity. Forty percent of respondents rated business conditions in their communities as weak/sluggish or declining/deteriorating. At the same time, there is unprecedented interest across numerous demographic groups in living and working in compact, walkable downtowns. These demographic changes are the opportunity, and an investment in strategic downtown revitalization in the answer.

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