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Downtown Businesses Debate Impact of SID

Candace Braun

If Princeton decides to become a Special Improvement District (SID), it could look forward to attracting more retailers and visitors while establishing a goal the whole community could work toward, according to the Downtown Business Advisory Team (DBAT) that spoke to the Princeton community on Wednesday, July 28.

The team was hired by the Community-Based Neighborhood Retail Initiative (CBNR), a task force for Princeton Future, which represents the interests of independent businesses in town. After meeting with the Borough, the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Princeton University, and downtown merchants in the morning, DBAT made an assessment of the general concerns in town, and what solutions could remedy them.

While DBAT offered several options for ways in which Princeton can be revitalized, the Special Improvement District (SID) received the team's highest recommendation. Other options included creating a lead organization for the town, establishing an economic or redevelopment corporation, or applying to the county for assistance.

Beth Lippman, executive director of Downtown NJ, which operates DBAT, said that although the Princeton community appears to be looking to make the town better as a whole, "we definitely think there is a lack of a shared vision." She added that while she doesn't believe there is a conflict between the various town entities, "they just aren't sharing in one total vision of the town."

One of the concerns that some Princeton groups expressed to DBAT was that there are too many chain restaurants and stores making their way into town and competing with existing businesses; examples cited include Ralph Lauren and Subway. Nearby malls and shopping centers also have had a negative impact on business in Princeton, some merchants said.

"You're not going to fight off the Wal-Marts of the world," said Ms. Lippman. "Downtown shopping is different, and a SID establishes that."

The SID would direct a person or group of persons to identify the goals and ideals of Princeton and to then specify the ways these could be accomplished, she said. Once established, the SID would make sure that any changes in local business or appearance would be coordinated with the master plan established by the SID and the entire community.

Establishing a SID

The first step Princeton needs to take is to determine what it intends to achieve by developing a SID or similar form of leadership in town, said Tom Dalessio, the New Jersey director of the Regional Plan Association: "We need to know where everyone wants to go and go in that direction." This goal would need to be established by all parts of the community, Mr. Dalessio said, including businesses, municipalities, non-profit organizations, and residents: "It's critically important that everyone comes together.... The area needs to be looked at as a single entity."

The overall project could take as a little as one year, or as many as ten years, according to Mr. Dalessio.

Compared to other business districts that have been trying to go in a similar direction, Princeton is ahead of the game, said Michael Redpath of Redpath & Associates, LLC: "Everyone is enthusiastic and passionate about the community and everyone is willing to do something about it."

Mr. Redpath cautioned that while a SID has proven to be successful in towns like Toms River, it isn't necessarily the way to go for all communities. Some business districts have merely created a "glorified promotional group" with a SID, he said.

In the past, members of the Princeton community haven't shown much interest in developing SID-style leadership in town, mostly due to the amount of funding that is needed to create one. Mr. Dalessio emphasized that if Princeton were to decide to move forward with a SID, funding and a paid staff would be needed to get the job done.

"We know the power of volunteerism but we also know its limits," he said. "[Funding] is not a luxury, it's a necessity."

Members of the community questioned whether or not non-profits such as Princeton University could be assessed and required to give money toward the SID. Ms. Lippman said this would be possible, although all non-profits would probably have to be assessed, including churches. After recommending simply asking the University for their financial assistance instead, she said: "I'm a believer of working with people.... You need to take off the boxing gloves to get things done."

It was also suggested that a SID could potentially "piggyback" on existing organizations, such as the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce.

CNBR will meet on Friday, August 13, at 8:15 a.m., at Mediterra to further discuss the ideas that DBAT presented to the community. A written report of the team's suggestions will follow in two month's time, said Sheldon Sturges, co-chair of Princeton Future.

The community appears to be open to the possibilities suggested by DBAT, and will continue to hold conversations, said Mr. Sturges: "The job is to form a consensus. I think there's a lot of enthusiasm."

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