December 22, 2021

Special Improvement District Still Under Consideration for Town

By Anne Levin

At a meeting of Princeton Council on Tuesday, December 21 (after press time), the governing body was expected to consider taking the next step toward forming a Special Improvement District (SID) by hiring Economic Development Strategists LLC for the third phase of consulting services on the proposal.

Stuart Koperweis, president of the company, led a presentation on the initiative at Council’s December 13 meeting. Koperweis has worked for the past year with the town’s Economic Revitalization Steering Committee, which held two meetings last September with business owners about forming a SID. The issue would be further discussed at a January Council meeting, when there would be opportunity for public comment.

A SID is a defined area in the business district of a town that is authorized by state law and created by a local ordinance to collect a special assessment on the commercial properties and/or businesses in that area. A nonprofit organization, separate from the municipality, collects that assessment, which goes toward improving the economic, physical, and social values of the district.

At the December 13 presentation, local business owners including Kathy Klockenbrink of Jammin’ Crepes and Jack Morrison of the JM Group of restaurants, both of whom are on the steering committee, spoke in favor of the concept. Towns including Montclair, Red Bank, and South Orange have successful SIDs, “a consistent and stable funding source to address agreed upon goals,” said Klockenbrink. Morrison said the idea is especially relevant considering the effects of the pandemic. “Over the last 22 months the community has witnessed firsthand the importance of an organization that supports local business, nonprofits, and institutions, while nurturing alliances with our town on shared initiatives,” he said.

Morrison recently stepped down as president of the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA), which is now headed by Andrew Siegel, CEO of Hamilton Jewelers. Asked how establishment of a SID would affect the PMA, Siegel said in an email that the idea is being closely followed by the PMA board.

“Our goal as merchant volunteers at the PMA is and always has been to provide programming, services, and representation to our fellow merchants, and we believe these will remain in demand and must remain a top priority in the future,” said Siegel. “We want to assure the merchant community that we are poised to continue being a trusted resource as the determination of a SID is deliberated. If a SID does form, we know that there will be some time between its legal formation and its actual functioning as an organization, so we fully expect to continue working for the merchant community during a transition phase. Also, after a potential SID begins functioning, the need for merchant-specific programming will remain, so we expect that our amazing PMA volunteers would continue to provide those resources within the SID. Our local merchants are the lifeblood of our town, and the PMA is committed to ensuring that popular programs and resources for merchants, by merchants, will continue as our town forges forward.”

Some local business representatives at the December 13 meeting said they were not aware of the plans for a possible SID. The steering committee issued a press release a few days after the meeting, clarifying the idea. Helena May, who owns the former Packet building at 300 Witherspoon Street, was quoted as recommending a SID to “establish an economically sustainable and vibrant Princeton, including in the Witherspoon-Jackson community, the gateway of Princeton. The formation of the SID will serve the entire business community, so we can better serve our key constituents: our residents and our guests.”

Aubrey Haines, managing partner of Princeton Property Partners, said, “COVID has been devastating to many businesses in Princeton. Many local shopkeepers watched helplessly as their economic viability evaporated almost overnight. There are now more vacant stores in Princeton than there has been in decades. We view the SID budget as an investment in our community. The SID funds will be used to make the town look better, function more efficiently and, working with Council, we will be able to create an environment where people will really enjoy the time they spend in Princeton and businesses will thrive.”

The steering committee representatives also said that if Princeton had a SID, it would have access to grants that were not available to it during the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. “Grant access for emergency support as well as long-term development, improvements, and community outreach is just another example of how the town could benefit from having a SID,” the release reads.

Some local business owners are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the possibility of a SID. Dorothea von Moltke, co-owner of Labyrinth Books, wrote in an email, “Princeton merchants have long been looking for a way to have someone work full-time to advocate for them and keep them all well informed as well as connected with each other and with the municipality. I very much hope that the SID can be the answer to this. Whether or not it becomes a meaningful answer, will depend on making sure the SID does not see itself largely as filling a marketing function, but rather takes as its mandate to help make progress on thorny issues such as parking, the prospect of several simultaneous construction sites in town over the next several years, and more. I am perplexed at the regulation that requires the composition of the board of the SID to be majoritarian property owners and am not sure about what that will mean for the representation of the concerns of the merchants themselves. In short: I am cautiously optimistic.”