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97sep04 westfield nj
email forum:
Citizen Johnston Questions Action on Downtown Business District Vacancies; Councilman Sullivan Responds

Date: 97-09-03 08:55:16 EDT To:

(Westfield Mayor) tcjardim@i-2000.com

(Westfield Councilman Sullivan) nsullivan@home.com

(Joe Spector - SID Chairman) leaderI@aol.com

(Westfield Councilman Goldman) 2170386@mcimail.com

CC:

(Johnston) richard.m.johnston@citicorp.com

(Peter Billson) pete@elbnet.com

From: (Corbin) publisher@goleader.com

Dear Tom, Neil, Joe & Larry,

The following message was received by The Westfield Leader's On-Line Forum. We feel that the writer has a valid question and would like to give you the opportunity to express your opinions. Please CC: myself or The Leader directly with any replies to Mr. Johnston so that we can allow the community at large to participate in this discussion. Thank you for your input.

In a message dated 97-08-29 09:20:32 EDT,
richard.m.johnston@citicorp.com

writes:

Subj: Vacant Stores
Date: 97-08-29 09:20:32 EDT

The amount of empty retail space in Westfield is troubling. What can the town do to help new business fill this space? Are there any plans in place yet?

Rich Johnston

Subj: Response to your Forum question about empty stores
Date: 97-09-04 01:35:43 EDT
From: (Neil Sullivan)
nsullivan@home.com

Dear Mr. Johnson:

In organizing my thoughts, I went back to a (rather lengthy) statement I made in March 1996 as the council was preparing to act on the Special Improvement District (or SID) proposal. I had just been named chairman of the Laws and Rules committee a few weeks earlier, and the council, to that point, had heard several spirited public hearings which too often became "Chamber vs. Main Street" contests. In the statement, I became one of the first council members to come out (unhedged) in favor of the proposal and asked for the proposal to be sent to my committee for action. (You'll see I thought it would take two weeks - it took months to get to a workable consensus - not just on council - but in the community, especially the downtown merchant group.)

I have attached that file (Please let me know if Word 97 format is a problem) as a good background piece to my thinking on the general subject of downtown, and downtown management. While I certainly have learned a great deal in the ensuing 18 months through the remainder of SID debate, the drafting of the SID ordinance, achieving a unanimous vote on the council in enacting the ordinance, and then the "birth" of a new organization, I think many of the comments and thoughts in the attached file are still valid today.

I will be reading and revising what is referred to by my colleagues as my "Team Westfield" speech, with the thought of publishing a more concise version on the Web.

I would appreciate your comments on the concepts I put forth.

As to a direct answer to your question: there is no one silver bullet to fill the vacant stores. I think we are doing many of the right things as a community and as a government in service to that community. Are we acting as urgently as I would like - no. But this must be a team effort - and that team building is taking longer than I had hoped. I am compiling a list of the initiatives I am aware of, and in which I am participating, to keep the downtown vibrant. (And we should be concerned not just about downtown, but in any area where businesses have a symbiotic relationship, but market forces cause one or more of the entities to leave, creating a vacancy.

I look forward to a interesting discussion.

Regards

Neil Sullivan

Speech by Councilman Sullivan in 1996 About Downtown Business District

I have remained purposely quiet as these hearings have progressed. I wanted to hear with as dispassioned and unbiased ear all the questions, all the criticisms, all the evidence in support of the activities contemplated in seeking to build on the strengths, overcome the weaknesses, and take advantage of the opportunities which present themselves in Downtown Westfield.

We have listened as our fellow Westfielders described to us not only how we need to take action to preserve their livelihood, but also their, and our, way of life. Before we begin debating the specifics of an ordinance, I hope we can agree not only on the objectives we seek accomplish - but how we seek to accomplish our objectives. [REPEAT for emphasis]

It is important that we approach these objectives as a TEAM, not as a committee. There is a difference. A team works together for common goals, for the common good, while a committee brings the individual interests of its members to the table, and committee members seek to promote their individual goals and represent their constituencies within the context of a solution. If we take the committee approach we are doomed to failure. We must create a team. A team comprised of all the stakeholders in our community. I see our role as a council to lead that team - TEAM WESTFIELD .

The men and women who I have the privilege to sit with at this table have an awesome responsibility and an unmatched opportunity to take action which will define for this, and future generations, the nature and character of this town. We must lead in defining our goals. We must lead in deciding how we seek to accomplish those goals. And we must lead in providing the tools to TEAM WESTFIELD, tools that a government is uniquely empowered to provide, to make sure we achieve what we set out to do.

I hope to briefly discuss the goals which have emerged from the collective work of the special panel appointed by the Mayor, the many citizens and business people who have given of their time in the multiple public hearings, and from my own experiences. [As an aside, I know how intimidating and nerve-wracking getting up in front of an audience in this chamber is. I hope we can all give credit to those unaccustomed to public speaking for successfully conveying their thoughts and ideas in what is frankly not an easy place to address a crowd.]

Once the goals are established, we must then determine what format, what structure is best suited to achieve our goals- government, a governmental agency, or the private sector - either individually or collectively through voluntary association. If we, that is TEAM WESTFIELD, decide that the goals are best accomplished through a set of activities which include municipal action - this council is the place to do it - and the time to do it is now. That is what the ordinance under consideration is all about.

The points on which we can agree are:

1. We need to professionally manage our commercial zones, particularly the CBD

2. We need to act on our parking situation

In professionally managing our commercial zones, I mean the CBD and perhaps beyond.

We need to:

to collectively and cohesively use this valuable asset

to fill vacant sites - to make the inevitable course of change work for all of us

to identify and recommend streetscape improvements to maintain a vibrant and vital appearance; unify as a cohesive retailing area through these improvements

to improve the Exterior look of stores - we do this today to some extent through zoning

to sponsor Media events / marketing programs

to re-introduce and support Westfield as a business locale

So there be no misunderstanding, I do NOT advocate all of the above as taxpayer-funded activities. Some of these such as capital investment in public assets, are the province of government, others, for example, media and marketing, are best left to the private sector funding

Professionally managed CBD:

The individual property owners, the merchants and service providers who are tenants, the employees of these business establishments, the Westfield residents and others who shop at retailers and purchase services in Westfield, and most of all the 10,000 residential property owners in Westfield all are stakeholders. All will benefit from a more vital, vibrant downtown, all will be called upon to "pay" for these benefits, some through taxation, some through changes in behavior, some through user fees. I have spent a great deal of time contemplating the issue of government involvement in the management of private affairs. Make no mistake, I am a free marketer at heart,( and I hope in deed.) The individual businessman and woman is much more adept at meeting their customers' needs that any government entity could ever try to be. The decision point for me is based on the premise that the question is NOT whether government should be involved, because we are already irreversibly involved in the CBD because we, and by that I mean the municipality, own the vast majority of shopper utilized parking and the largest share of employee and commuter utilized parking in the CBD. And the way in which we manage that valuable and frequently scarce resource may very well spell the difference between success and failure. And I am likely stating the obvious, but we are also responsible for the streets and flow of traffic in the area as well. And how we manage those attributes impacts our pedestrian and vehicle traffic - key determinants of retail trade.

I think any mall manager will tell you that the key to the success of regional malls has been the ability to attract shoppers to multiple stores on a single visit. The purchases often become secondary to the "experience". Our goal should be nothing short of having the same kind of "experience" here in Westfield. We as a council need to ensure the downtown is professionally managed - particularly in areas in which we, by virtue of our ownership, or stewardship, control the asset in question. Make no mistake about it - management makes the difference.

My business experiences have taught me that we cannot examine ourselves in a vacuum. We are in constant competition - competition for merchants and service providers to set up shop in our town; -competition for employees to work at these establishments; - competition for consumers to patronize these merchants; competition for future residents who will take the place of those who choose to move to climates where you don't have winters featuring 70 inches of snow. We compete for consumer dollars with the large regional malls, other communities and the big box stores on the highways. We compete for residents with our fellow communities - both those geographically proximate and those who merely like to compare themselves to Westfield. We compete on "Quality of Life" issues with parking decks and mass transit alternatives in other locales. We compete on the basis of education and cultural opportunities. We compete on many more fronts every day. We must bring all the resources we have to this competition. We cannot hope to win with anything less than the total commitment that TEAM WESTFIELD can bring to the competition. And this comment, I direct in particular to my fellow town council members - it is our charge, our obligation, our duty, to lead.

And it's not as if government's long arm hasn't already reached into the affairs - many would argue too far - into the conduct of business through the myriad zoning ordinances and other regulatory and legislative initiatives of this council for generations.

Stimulate improvements:

We have too many empty stores downtown. It is a reflection of the change which is occurring in retail and the change which is occurring in our downtown. I look at it as an opportunity. Adding stores which can build traffic to enhance the sales of our existing group of merchants can be done through careful selection and recruitment of prospective tenants. Do the landlords have to listen, to follow a "grand design" of this planning group? No. But for the good of all, I hope they will.

The strategic plan for Downtown Westfield, combined with the tactical implementation steps, will be a living, breathing process created from the work of the stakeholders which can be looked to by the landlords and owners of the business properties in town. Not a plan by merchants, or a subset of merchants. Not a plan by landlords. Not a plan by lawyers. Not a plan by bureaucrats. Not a plan by Republicans. Not a plan by Democrats. Not a plan by some consultant. All of the preceding have a role to play as groups and individuals in building our plan for success. The plan for the future success of our Downtown is a plan by TEAM WESTFIELD. The SID provides a framework, a structure, a tool. We must act. And we must act with urgency. We must lead. We must lead TEAM WESTFIELD.

2. We have to manage our Parking resources

If it wasn't clear enough from the excellent report on the parking situation this council received earlier this year, many of the people who stepped up to the microphone make sure we heard it loud and clear: the three most important downtown issues this council needs to address are: Number One: Parking. Number Two: Parking. Number Three: Parking.

I guess this is one of those "glass is half-full, half-empty" tests. Where some would say "My God, Downtown Westfield has a parking problem", I say "Thank God, Downtown Westfield has a parking problem." Not to oversimplify, but my background tends to have me see things in economic terms. We have too much demand, and not enough supply, and inefficient and ineffective distribution of the supply we have. And our demand management is stagnant, and sometimes proves counter-productive. As I said above, we as government have a unique obligation and opportunity, as we are the single largest owner of parking in the business district. What better challenge for TEAM WESTFIELD.

I am not convinced, nor has anyone tried to pursuade me for that matter, that council, as stewards of this parking asset should cede authority to another body - an SID or other entity. Obviously, the downtown improvement group will have plenty to recommend to this and future councils ways to continually improve our management of this area.

I do not expect this council to wait for the proposed special improvement district board to take actions on the parking task force study. My colleagues on the Parking and Transportation committee will soon report an ordinance to take action on the challenges reported in the task force study. If they don't, I will ask that the council act as a whole.

There are other problems in our downtown. We have a zoning ordinance which needs revisiting and revising. I will do my part. As the new chairman of the Laws and Rules committee, I will see to it that the ordinance is reviewed and revised to remove the punitive, nonsensical restrictions that are vestiges of another era. We start this month with the sign ordinance. We must act. We must act with urgency. We must lead TEAM WESTFIELD.

I appreciate the indulgence of my colleagues in allowing me to take up so much time in discussing this ordinance. [maybe lighthearted comment about length of statement] And with regard to the ordinance as it was introduced, I have questions. I have concerns. I do not agree with all the facets of the SID report. I want to see amendments to the ordinance as it is currently proposed. I'd like to see things such as term limits, changes in the makeup of the board through increased merchant participation and a higher proportion of residents, and some modification to the borders. While it may not be the collective wisdom of this council to have it occur in the context of this ordinance, I want to obtain a bonafide commitment to other commercial areas in town, particularly the Central Avenue commercial corridor. And to ensure this doesn't become a bureaucracy run amok with no end, I propose a sunset provision, whereby this body will expire at the end of seven years unless a future council renews the commitment.

We are here to debate and vote the ordinance. The ordinance creates a quasi-governmental agency permitted by state statute. (The best comparison I can make is the Library Board, or the Recreation Commission,) The SID is a tool to promote a Fair Tax. A Fair Tax plan which will provide this council and future councils to match the benefits to the revenues required. This board will recommend to this council certain investments in our CBD, and expenditures and policy changes to further the interests of this town. Those recommendations, many of which were foreshadowed in the committee report, some of which were the subject of speculation are not what we are debating here. Those will be debated here - another day - another time. Not a penny of taxes will be raised - not a cent of tax revenue spent without the approval of this, or some future council.

At the end of our discussion tonight, I will ask the council to send the ordinance to the Laws and Rules committee, where the committee can prepare it for a report back to the council as a whole in two weeks, at our next conference meeting. I expect the committee to ensure that at the following regular council meeting, we will have an ordinance for debate, and I hope, action.

The SID board will be a volunteer body comprised of residents, merchants and property owners - the stakeholders I spoke of earlier. The dozen or so "trustees" will oversee the work of hundreds of volunteers, all working for the common goals, the common good. The SID alone will not be the salvation, the magic solution to the challenges we face in our Central Business District. Our future success lies in the work that can only be accomplished by TEAM WESTFIELD. The SID is a tool. An important, unmatched tool that TEAM WESTFIELD must have to do its work. Our job as a council is clear. We must act. We must act with urgency. We must lead TEAM WESTFIELD.

(by Westfield Councilman Neil Sullivan March, 1996)

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader
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Revised: September 08, 1997.