WESTFIELD — Last week, two articles appeared on newjerseyglobe.com regarding canvas bags that were purchased but not distributed by the Downtown Westfield Corporation (DWC) using money from a Covid relief grant. The bags, according to a statement in the article from DWC Board Chair Patricia Hanigan, did not arrive on time to be handed out during the holiday shopping season.
The DWC is a Special Improvement District (SID), funded by a tax assessment on properties within its boundaries. It was established by town ordinance and has its own governing body appointed by the mayor and council, comprised of: one councilperson, two property owners, two business owners, two residents who neither own property nor operate a business in the SID, and two ex officio non-voting members. The DWC’s budget is approved by the mayor and council each year.
The grant, which was funded by the federal CARES Act, was part of a Main Street New Jersey Covid-19 Relief program administered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and was originally reported in The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times in November of 2020.
The grant application was filed on October 16, 2020, and according to Executive Director Bob Zuckerman, “We only had 10 days between when we received notice of the grant award and when we started our ambassador program and opened our visitors center.”
Westfield’s application and award totaled $72,530. The DWC’s application specified the purchase of the bags for $6,000, along with $10,000 to rent an empty storefront to serve as a welcome and wrapping center; $10,000 to hire ambassadors; free delivery service from local businesses to residents through Delivery Now for $7,500, and $20,000 for a retail market study. The grant specified that the bags were to be given out during the holiday shopping season and beyond.
More than 20 ambassadors and gift wrappers were hired by the DWC to hand out maps and masks, along with a free gift-wrapping service to shoppers during the holiday season. Among those employed were children of Mayor Shelley Brindle and Councilwoman Dawn Mackey, who both sit on the DWC board. Mayor Brindle is a non-voting ex-officio member of the board. The children employed total $976.50 of the $12,527 spent on the ambassador program, according to documents received by The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times. The purchase of the tote bags totaled more than $8,000, also over the amount allocated in the grant, according to the documents.
“We had some surplus funds in last year’s budget due to a few events that we never produced due to Covid, so we appropriated some of that money to help pay for our entire holiday program,” Mr. Zuckerman stated in an email to The Leader and The Times.
In the grant application the DWC indicated that no member of the board of directors/trustees would receive any direct or indirect personal or monetary gain from the funding of the grant. When asked if the hiring of board members’ children was a violation of the grant use, the DCA told The Leader and The Times, “Without knowing all the details surrounding the organization’s hiring practices, we cannot respond to this question.”
The jobs were advertised on the DWC’s Facebook and Instagram pages. “We hired a Westfield resident named Denise Edwards, who had a logistics background, and she did a great job managing both our Holiday Welcome Center and our ambassador program,” Mr. Zuckerman told The Leader and The Times. “Therefore, all the applications for both the ambassador and gift-wrapper positions were directed to Denise. Denise interviewed every candidate, vetted them, and then scheduled those who met our qualifications.”
While the grant application indicated that the DWC intended to hire two short-term employees, that plan shifted, according to Mr. Zuckerman. “There weren’t that many people who wanted to work long hours as gift wrappers for $12 an hour because this period was before vaccinations, and spending long hours inside was still extremely risky for many people. There also weren’t many people who wanted to work long hours outside as ambassadors for $15 an hour because of the cold weather, so we had to hire more people than we originally thought to make up for this. We also didn’t know how busy we would be in the visitors center, so we hired more people than we had originally planned to prepare for all eventualities,” he told The Leader and The Times.
Mayoral candidate JoAnn Neylan posted a video on Facebook taking issue with the expenditures, contrasting it to Summit Downtown, which also received a DCA grant. Summit applied for and received $120,000 to be used for small business grants. Ms. Neylan said that the town “missed a real opportunity to give direct and substantial support to our local economy.”
However, more than $270,000 was given to over 175 local businesses at the height of the pandemic by The Westfield United Fund. The campaign, spearheaded by Mayor Brindle, was dubbed “We Love Local,” and businesses who applied for and received grants were not required to be within the bounds of the DWC.