Is there still a pulse in the heart of Trenton?

Local bookseller seeking input on what businesses to attract to Trenton

When Eric Maywar worked at the Trenton Downtown Association as business manager, he developed a Targeted Attraction Plan for retail for downtown Trenton, which he based it on work done by DANTH, Inc., a well-known consultant in downtown revitalization.

“We know that this project can work in Trenton, because it has worked before—when Matt Bergheiser and Bea Scala-Fischler at the TDA decided downtown Trenton needed a bookstore, and went and recruited one,” Maywar said.

He should know. He owns Classics Books, the business that Bergheiser recruited.

With the blessing and support of the City of Trenton’s Housing and Economic Development Department, as well as TDA and Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, Maywar has volunteered to put his plan into motion — even though he no longer works for the TDA.

The plan consists of four basic steps and is described online at downtowntrentonproject.wordpress.com. Developing collateral is the first step. Collateral that might “sell downtown Trenton as a place to have a business” would include demographic data, incentives available to businesses, related press clippings and testimonials from other businesses. According the website, the TDA has committed to producing such material.

So for now Maywar is focused on Step 2: deciding what people want in their downtown. To accomplish this, his Downtown Trenton Project plans to hold a series of discussion groups to get a feel for the sort of retail people would like to see.

To get as diverse response as possible, discussion groups will engage various “affinity groups” such as civic associations, churches and workers in state office buildings. The hope is that discussion groups will capture potential economic spending patterns in order to determine what signature retail would best succeed downtown.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a lot of “talk” about developing Trenton’s downtown area. The hotel on Lafayette Street was intended to help breathe life into the capital city’s downtown after hours and on weekends. But it has struggled to break even since its opening in April of 2002.

A report published in February of this year by the nonprofit Lafayette Yard Community Development Corporation, which oversees the hotel, cites “redevelopment weaknesses” in the city as part of the problem in making the hotel a financial success.

The construction of an office building at Front and South Broad Streets in 2004 was supposed to help stimulate a business economic revival. The building was conceived to house a large law firm, Hill Wallack, as its main tenant. The relocation of the firm from West Windsor to Trenton, with its 140 well paid, professional employees, was seen as a potential boost for the local economy.

Delays in the construction of the building resulted in Hill Wallack withdrawing from the deal. Once the building was finished, Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) moved its regional offices into part of the building. The building, until recently, remained only partially occupied.

Now, with the exit of Wells Fargo, the Schools Development Authority will consolidate all of its offices under one roof at this prime downtown location. Unfortunately, this only cannibalizes the occupancy of another nearby, landmark office building at State and Warren. There is no gain in downtown’s business-day population. And with the departing Wells Fargo employees goes their support of any Trenton retail.

The 2004 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy makes it clear that a focus on the downtown area is key to revitalizing the city: Focus Development in the Downtown.

A focus on the revitalization of the Downtown Area is a critical strategy for bringing life back into the downtown, including a strong and vital retail component and a robust and highly skilled office sector. Currently, the downtown residential population does not have the density needed to attract modern branded retail.

The city’s ability to show progress in bringing higher income people to live and work in the downtown will encourage major retailers to make the investment in Trenton as well. Mixed-use development which would bring residential life and consumers into the downtown, while also increasing the retail appeal of the area is a long term strategy which will reap large benefits.

In the 2008 Downtown Capital District Master Plan, it is noted that the business mix in the Central Business District “is dominated by reduced-price retailers, such as dollar stores, bodegas and sandwich shops.” The plan recognizes that, with the exception of food outlets, the retail mix is not set up to capture sales from the weekday workers that fill the office buildings.

The plan suggests maintaining a detailed inventory of available space to help recruit new retail and restaurants. Unfortunately, the document also counts heavily on the completion of four large scale adaptive reuse projects (Broad Street Bank Building, Commonwealth Building, Trenton Town Center and Bell Lofts, and Aleda Building) to bring more residents downtown to support businesses. The Broad Street Bank Building project is the only one to have been completed, and that hasn’t really added enough sparkle and shine to the downtown economic scene.

Absent a significant residential population downtown to support businesses during evening and weekend hours, will business recruitment be effective?

Maywar thinks so. “Unlike some other studies and community outreach you might be familiar with, this is action-oriented and has a specific and achievable goal,” he said. That goal is the attraction of five to ten small businesses defined by the discussion groups.

In August 2007, the TDA and the City of Trenton made a big deal about the opening of a Foot Locker store on State Street. Touted as the “first global retailer” to locate in the city in a decade, the store was welcomed as a sign of downtown’s turnaround.

2013 08 TD Downtown2Besides assisting with the navigation of the city’s inspection and permitting process, TDA oversaw a $4,500 façade improvement grant for the store at 31 E. State St.

But sometime in 2011 or 2012, the athletic footwear store closed, the space now vacant.

Another factor in reviving downtown or the city in general, is both the reality and the perception of crime.

The city is currently on track to having one of, if not the highest, number of homicides in a single year. According to the Trenton Police Department website, in a half mile radius of the intersection of State and Warren Streets, there were 218 crimes reported from Jan. 1 to July 14.

Burglaries lead the way with 43 in the stated time period. Vandalism was second (39) and theft/larceny (33) was the third most common crime reported. Drugs and alcohol violations (30) were in fourth place.

Robberies (17) and Assaults (7) are 6th and 9th on the list, respectively.

It is true that a more active, populated downtown actually decreases crime. So the problem remains, how do you reduce the fear of crime enough to attract businesses and customers to downtown?

This would seem to indicate that public safety needs to be improved before a concerted effort is made to woo people and business back to downtown.

Commercial realtor and TDA board member Anne LaBate sees it differently.

“I am weary of people who say nothing can happen ‘until,’” she said.

“Waiting for that one thing that transforms the city is a setup for disappointment. Waiting for folks in City Hall to do everything is unrealistic,” she said. “We can identify small do-able initiatives and move forward to achieve successes.”

LaBate supports of Maywar’s initiative. Better government advocate Dan Dodson, on the other hand, is not a confident that Maywar’s plan will be effective. Dodson feels the planned meetings are “naive” in their intent.

“We’d need a functioning government, which we don’t have.”

Knute Jensen is a state employee advocating for more of his colleagues to move to Trenton. Like so many, he sees the potential here and wants to help jump start Trenton’s revitalization. He recognizes that perception is part of the problem, but remains enthusiastic that things can change.

“I can only imagine the frustration of long time residents who’ve been dedicated to the city for years and seen things stagnate or get worse despite conversation, he wrote in a recent email. “But as a new resident it occurs to me that conversation is necessary. Insufficient yes, but necessary. Anything that people have ever transformed was begun with a conversation. As a new member of the community I hope that the veterans will bring their experience to the conversation and help the community avoid pitfalls they have lived through. Maybe we can start some brand new conversations that have never occurred before.”