I will admit, when I found out that one of my favorite stores, Learning Express, was going out of business in Hillsborough, it upset me. So that can account for some of my negativity that I expressed in last week’s blog. However, the blog spurred some great conversation in and out of town, and also allowed me the opportunity to find out what our town business advocate, Gene Strupinsky, and Hillsborough Township Committeeman and former Mayor Frank Delcore have to say about some of the issues raised.
Delcore is the liaison from the township committee to the business advocate, so both he and Strupinsky work together on some of the points I will mention below. Both gentlemen were very accessible and forthcoming and had responded to my questions quickly. My hope is that this blog captures the essence of what they have expressed and answers some of the questions raised by some of the residents and myself.
First, what’s a business advocate? In 2009, Strupinsky became Hillsborough’s full-time business advocate. From the town website the position is explained: “The Business Advocate will be responsible for researching and identifying the benefits of the various new state and federal stimulus programs, loans, grants, and incentives for Hillsborough businesses, will serve on both the Regulatory Oversight and Grants Committees and will work to keep businesses open, bring more businesses to Hillsborough, and encourage economic growth."
That said, in response to my blog and some of the comments made, Strupinsky had said, “I think that the basic premise that 206 is full of vacancies is not correct. Other than Cost Cutters, I don’t think you’ll find any vacancies in Town Center; and if you’ll look, the new construction at Amwell Road and 206 is completely full. As a matter of fact, if you go from Amwell Road to New Amwell Road, I don’t think you’ll find any retail vacancies. If you go down Amwell Road to Amwell Mall and Amwell Center, you won’t find any vacancies. If you go up to the Walgreens shopping center you won’t find any vacancies.”
OK, I have not gone from door to door along that path, but I’m assuming that’s true. But what about further down Route 206 as you head towards the Somerville Circle? What about off of Triangle Road? That was my immediate question; my blog (including the photos I had taken) had focused on other commercial vacancies in town not in those areas, with the exception of Cost Cutters.
Delcore also felt that, “If you look along the 206 corridor, there’s not a lot of significant retail vacancy.”
I guess not “a lot,” but there are some large ones that have remained vacant for years where anchor stores in strip malls used to be, and now there’s the looming question if Kmart will survive as an anchor store, too. So I brought up those specific locations to Delcore, and also mentioned the residents’ “wish list” of businesses that they might like to see go into those vacant places or other existing commercial vacancies in town.
Several businesses that I had mentioned town residents would find desirable include, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, P.F. Chang’s, JC Penney, a large bakery, a seafood market, Retro Fitness, and a pool hall. (These were not my ideas. These were gathered responses from Hillsborough residents. I do support some of them.)
Regarding this town’s business “wish list”, Delcore said, “We would welcome them here.”
“I know there’s been a lot of interest in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and I echo that request,“ Delcore said. “Unfortunately, some of the [existing commercial] locations we have available are not suitable to that type of store. The Cost Cutters location is bigger than Trader Joe’s would need.”
He said that the Pathmark location is too big, too.
“They look for highway access to draw people in from neighboring towns. Unfortunately, we lack that,” Delcore continued. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to highlight Hillsborough. We have expressed our interest in having them. We have talked to other types of restaurants, like Panera Bread. It takes two to tango. The location has to fit their demographics, and the traffic has to fit their needs.”
When Delcore was asked if there was a plan to try to get a P.F. Chang’s or a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse here, he said, “There are some areas where restaurants just haven’t done well. Residents need to frequent them and they need to pull in people from surrounding areas. With the economy right now, restaurants are struggling. Hopefully, the economy improves and gives us the opportunity to bring more here.”
So, it looks like we have to wait and see what happens with the economy regarding restaurant requests.
On a more optimistic note, Delcore said, “We do talk with a number of businesses, both about existing buildings as well as vacant land to see if this is adequate.”
So, our business advocate and committeeman are trying!
To date, the town has not conducted any formal survey of residents as to what types of businesses Hillsborough people desire. However, Delcore said that people can attend township meetings and voice their opinions and concerns about this or any other issue. There’s always a section on the agenda for people to speak. Also, email addresses and phone numbers of town officials are posted on the website. He added that most requests go through the mayor’s office, but if they deal specifically with business expansion issues, they do go to him or Strupinsky.
Speaking of surveys, Strupinsky mentioned a study was done last October regarding Hillsborough’s commercial vacancy rates.
“I believe you’ll find that Hillsborough is actually doing better than our surrounding neighbors. We did a study–we checked last October, and I think we compared Hillsborough vacancy rates to Branchburg, Montgomery and Franklin in retail, office, and industrial; and if we weren’t lower in all categories against all communities, we weren’t any higher in any. I think we were pretty much across the board lower vacancy rates there.”
OK, but what if the neighboring towns are doing just “so-so”? I didn’t see the study, but I do drive through these other towns, and shop there, and I’d say from the looks of things, they’ve got their commercial vacancies, too. So Hillsborough isn’t doing any worse than they are, but I guess we’re average or slightly better than average. Maybe that’s expected in a hard-hit economy everywhere; maybe I’m just a perfectionist and overachiever.
As for the rumors of “red tape” scaring businesses away, did you know that in 2009, when Delcore was mayor of Hillsborough, he implemented an economic action plan? I didn’t until this past weekend when he brought it to my attention. The focus is to “move bureaucracy out of the way of business."
“We have implemented an economic action plan to make sure our businesses can stay in town or come here. There were about 40 changes made when I was mayor, such as changes to regulations and fee structures, changes with the planning and zoning boards, reducing fees for permits, and making it so businesses wanting to come to Hillsborough don’t have to hire professionals to come to the zoning board for small issues, which costs them money. We are eliminating things from an approval or permit process standpoint.”
Less bureaucracy? Sounds good to me!
OK, enough of that red tape. Let’s get onto other points of discussion!
And the burning question on many residents’ minds: What’s happened with the Sonic restaurant situation? According to Delcore, it had nothing to do with too much red tape.
Here’s his account of that situation: “From the standpoint of the township, Sonic removed their application prior to approval. There was never a plan for our [the municipality] group to review. There was some pushback from the local community and concern about traffic and noise. It was a fairly small piece of property. Trying to force their business into a lot that didn’t accommodate their size, and the public response and feedback at some of the hearings, was probably why the application was withdrawn. I never asked Sonic why they decided not to continue, but this is my guess.”
So what’s done is done. It’s always the call of the business owner in the end as to where they want to set up shop.
I circled back to if Delcore and Strupinsky had plans on how to fill some of the existing commercial vacancies in town and their role in doing such.
Delcore further clarified this point to me: “Filling commercial vacancies is at the prerogative of the landlord. [As a business advocate], we do have conversations with the landlord, but at the end of the day, it’s the landlord that has to entice the business. As a municipality, we don’t have the capacity or authority to do so. We make sure landowners understand what we can offer them. At the end of the day, the landlord has to provide incentive for the new business.”
So, we’ve got Delcore and Strupinsky providing the demographics data to prospective businesses we would like to have in town, and having conversations with landlords who do have existing properties available to rent or buy; but there is a limit as to what the town can do to fill these existing vacancies. And that is part of the free enterprise system in the United States.
It does make me wonder how badly some of the landlords want to fill vacancies in our town, though. I remarked in my last blog that if I were a landlord I’d rather collect some rent than none. Are they asking for rents that are too high? Are they just not seeing any demand for the spaces they have available? Are they screening applicants for one reason or another to meet either a zoning or personal need? I can only guess.
Strupinsky remarked that most of the commenters on my blog, including myself, were not in favor of new construction. True, but after I had a conversation with Delcore, I’m now rethinking my point of view. I’m not jumping on the bandwagon here saying let’s get rid of all the green space in town. No. But, new construction where it makes sense–well, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Just read on.
Strupinsky continued, “Filling up any vacancies that we might have–and as I say, we really don’t have that many on 206 beyond Cost Cutters–won’t do anything to affect the tax rates for residents here, or the residential tax rates, because we only get new ratables with new construction; not filling empty stores. There are probably a dozen properties I can mention right on 206 that could be developed but are not developed.
"Now, no empty stores, but there’s undeveloped land there and these are all zoned for commercial or industrial development, and I see no reason why we should not develop them. They are not preserved properties. They’re not off near residences, and they’re not in farmland western township. They are right on the heart of Route 206 where most of our commercial development is.”
With that thought, let’s mention some new development projects that are in the planning stages in town. There’s the GSA Depot Project. I’m not sure if everyone knows what that is, but there’s some land that was a former munitions site that the town wants to turn into ballparks, and a park among other things.
“Everything all fits together,” commented Delcore in regard to how eventually, new development in Hillsborough will lead to bringing in more people from outside of town and benefiting the local economy. “With the GSA [Depot] Project, there are about 40 acres [of the 321 acre site] which can be used for new commercial businesses like an ice rink, bowling alley, a laser tag arena, or recreational use, in the same complex where the ballparks will be built. So that would suffice the request residents have made about getting more businesses in town that provide places for families and children to go on weekends and in their free time, right in town.”
Regarding the Green Village site planning, which is a different project Hillsborough is involved in, “as development goes up across from the Kmart area, it should bring in more business traffic to the area,” Delcore remarked.
My comment was, “well, won’t it bring more traffic into the area, period?” We definitely don’t need a bottleneck on Route 206.
Delcore said that it would have somewhat of an impact to Route 206. “I wouldn’t be truthful if I said that it wasn’t. In 2010 we told the lieutenant governor ... that if we don’t complete the Route 206 improvements from Brown Avenue on, it [the Route 206 bypass currently under construction] doesn’t really help us. We’re working to get that piece done.”
Can you follow? These are all pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Let me try to explain this better.
“With the Route 206 bypass completed, I certainly hope that will help. If we can get the state to move on that, it will make it easier for people outside Hillsborough to get here and through town,” Delcore added.
OK, so the bypass, plus Route 206 improvements as you drive north on Route 206 toward the Somerville Circle, equal alleviation of traffic congestion brought about by new development, which in turn stimulates the local economy.
Yes, it’s long term, but, maybe it is a solution!
Then we got to talking about Kmart. Right now we don’t know if Kmart will stay in Hillsborough or not. It’s not Hillsborough’s call. When I asked Delcore if there’s anything that we can do or anything that they have been doing to help Kmart stay in town, he said, “Other than making sure residents are frequenting the store, we can’t cut taxes or force traffic to go there.”
But as previously stated, if you’ve got the apartments, affordable housing, an extended-stay hotel and some new retail businesses as outlined by the Green Village project, then yes, people are driving up and down 206, and maybe that will “save” Kmart. Who knows for sure? It would be great if we all had crystal balls. But can Kmart hold out long enough until the project is completed? Only time will tell.
I also dove a bit more into the Green Village project because I was concerned that, one, we would actually get a hotel to sign on there, and two, we would actually be able to populate that hotel with patrons. Delcore said that the business advocate, “has not reached out yet to specific vendors [for the extended stay hotel]. Gene Strupinsky may have had some contact, just sharing demographic information, but most dialogue has been held by the developer. Before it was zoned for an extended stay hotel, extensive demographic studies were done.”
I brought up the question if he thought that we would get business people/consultants to stay here in that future extended stay hotel who work in neighboring towns, and Delcore believes we will. He also said that once the park is in place with the ball fields under the GSA project, he envisions people coming here from out of town to stay for events and tournaments at that hotel.
I have to admit, it sounds like a pretty good plan, now that he explained it more.
The bottom line is, that the GSA Project, the Green Village Project, the Route 206 bypass, and other Route 206 improvements will all take time to complete. They are all pieces of a puzzle to help stimulate the local economy and help our existing businesses by increasing the flow of traffic into town, without creating a traffic nightmare.
So the future does look brighter for Hillsborough. The question is, can the businesses we do have right now hold out and survive in this economy until both the economy improves and these projects are completed? Only time will tell.