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A New Dawn for Hillsborough?

Can these pieces of a puzzle help stimulate Hillsborough's local economy? Here's what I found out about what our township is doing, sprinkled with some answers to residents' questions.

I will admit, when I found out that one of my favorite stores, , was going out of business in Hillsborough, it upset me. So that can account for some of my negativity that I expressed in . 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 , 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 . 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 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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

gregg January 10, 2012 at 06:22 PM
If you go to the KIMCO Commercial Property Site, it indicates that WEIS Markets has leased the Pathmark site. This appears to be a perfect fit. I see no announcement/news/blogs out there besides this on the Kinco iste diagram for the Hillborough Promenade. If this is true, GREAT
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Ugh. More closings. Thanks for the info Sly.
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Gregg, thanks for the info. First I've heard of it. I had to google WEIS Markets to find out what it was, since I was not familiar with the chain until now. But yes, that would be a perfect fit. If it's true, I wonder when we'll see a sign change or a "coming soon" indication.
Steve January 10, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Good news, we miss the Pathmark, it was not as busy as the other super markets so could get around easy and get in and out. I also had to look up WEIS, look forward to giving they a try when and if they come.
Sly January 10, 2012 at 06:47 PM
If true, it's exciting news. But wouldn't the Business Advocate and DelCore know about it? or perhaps if it's still a deal in negotiation, they couldn't divulge? Also, looking on the KIMCO site, there are different names for the Pizza place and Game Stop as well as Joey G's. Hopefully, they just didn't update the site plan for these retailers. :(
BDVideo January 10, 2012 at 06:52 PM
I'm just playing "armchair town planner" again, but I would bet that Weis, if it comes, should do well. I think I've seen it in affluent parts of Bucks and Montgomery County, PA. Since it's new to the area, it may generate curiosity and good business right from the grand opening. If it is indeed coming.
gregg January 10, 2012 at 07:53 PM
This Weis thing looks like very fresh, new data. They jusy had an auction to "clean out" the Pathmark, which is consistant with a change in tenant coming, even a new Food Store. They also know (or have a measure) of the decrease in foot traffic at the Pizzaria and the Jewelery Store, and for that matter the leaving Toy Store. They do not want to loose these, or the Justice, etc. They need the anchor in place and this seems a great fit. Now they need to execute and communicate. Amazing info the web can give you, even without trying
gregg January 10, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Think of the decreased Mom/Dad traffic durining the week with stay at home parents who food shop during the week. It also must be a drag on Home Goods.
gregg January 10, 2012 at 08:00 PM
By the way its lose, not loose.
Curt Carnes January 10, 2012 at 08:09 PM
I believe most Americans are law abiding citizens, if more carried weapons, there would be considerably less crime, and therefore less need for police. Also, many companies and individuals do hire private security. This may surprise you, but I believe the constitution is a living breathing document. It was written with a clearly defined method to bring change, or be amended, if so desired by “we the people.” As was the case when Prohibition (a huge, costly, and mostly unwanted government control) was repealed. No OWSers, no riots, no anything outside of a functioning government, working with-in the rules established by ‘we the people!” And frankly isn't that what is is all about? It is time to get the federal government back to only the 18 enumerated powers the constitution grants in Article 1, Section 8. Then if we want to change the Constutition, do so by the rules already contained of the Constitution. Okay, I’m getting pretty far abeam here, so I’ll bring this to a close now.
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 08:34 PM
Gregg, I agree that's what happens when an anchor store leaves - the smaller businesses tend to see decreased shopping traffic. That's why it's so important to try to fill large vacancies in strip malls, or prevent them in the first place.
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 09:04 PM
I did some digging on the Weiss issue, guys. Here's the new blog: http://hillsborough.patch.com/blog_posts/weis-appears-to-be-filling-pathmark-vacancy
Shark January 10, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Who the heck in Hillsborough wants or goes to Kmart? No one! Because its lousy! I recently went there 2 weeks before Christmas on a weeknight and there were about 10 cars in the parking lot. The interior and customer service reminds me of 99 cent store. I hope it closes down soon and is replaced by something better such as a Target or Walmart. As for the old Pathmark location, I would love for a Wegmans to come! Wegmans is certainly a big enough shop to fill the space.
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 09:43 PM
My feeling is that any tenant is better in a shopping plaza than no tenant. Plus, Kmart has done well in many parts of the country. I think people recently have played a part in that, too with the "angel lay-a-way phenomenon" referred to in this article / video: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/complete-strangers-touched-altruistic-layaway-angels/story?id=15199745#.TwywqoHfV8E Also, check out my latest blog about the former Pathmark location http://hillsborough.patch.com/blog_posts/weis-appears-to-be-filling-pathmark-vacancy
Jennifer Hendri January 10, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Rita's Water Ice in Hillsborough will see all of you March 2nd. Now hiring too!
Laura Madsen January 10, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Love Ritas! Can't wait til you guys re-open again in the Spring! :)
Pen Man January 11, 2012 at 01:14 AM
Following the timeframe of the posts, I can’t believe the Business Advocate or DelCore knew anything. It appears they talked to Laura over the weekend, and someone found the news on the web, either over the weekend or today. I’m having trouble believing they couldn’t divulge anything, if something was on the web. Maybe Curt is right about private companies being better able to handle things like this, because it sure looks like our government played no part in it.
Curt Carnes January 11, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Let us not get the cart in front of the horse. I put a call into the Weis Real Estate Division, and was transferred to Public Relations, asking if the rumors were true about them taking over the old Pathmark location in Hillsborough. Of course I got voice mail, but I left the question and I will report the answer when I get it In addition I looked at their 10K report and they seem to be a very stable company. Weis is listed on the NYSE, under the ticker of WMK. They employ 17,500 people.
Steve January 11, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Curt, thanks for taking the time to look into this further. It would be great to get a confirmation from a source in the know at WEIS.
Laura Madsen January 11, 2012 at 04:39 PM
I have already been in contact with a representative from Weis that said "Sorry, but we do not comment on any of our future real estate plans.". That said, the KIMCO website with the property diagram showing that Weis is in the former Pathmark location is public knowledge, and our town business advocate is aware that Weis has expressed interest in that location.
Curt Carnes January 12, 2012 at 03:56 AM
The Simple Skinny -- At least the way I see it. Given Weis won’t discuss the Hillsborough location, then it is NOT official, otherwise they would. Now look, I’m not saying they aren’t coming, or looking to come, I’m just saying it is not official, and as we all know -- It isn’t over till the ink dries on the signatures.
Laura Madsen January 12, 2012 at 11:06 AM
Part 1: Curt, see that's where I disagree. If Weis were not going to lease that space, I highly doubt KIMCO would make that marketing document I referenced in my other blog public. It's bad for their business to show that the Pathmark space is leased, when it isn't. Kind of stops other prospective clients from inquiring about leasing the property. To me, that's the equivalent of an "Under Contract" sign put out on someone's front lawn when they're selling their house. It means to others, "Hey, this house is technically sold. Go ahead, bid on it if you want to, but we're saying, we're in the process of finalizing the paperwork with a renter/buyer." As far as Weis's policy of not commenting on their future real estate plans - it's exactly that - their policy. Every time I've seen a new supermarket open in a town, they generally take out full page ads in local papers, and hang "Grand Opening" banners. They like to take charge of promoting themselves to the public in their own way. Some even do official press releases. Personally, I don't think that Weis expected anyone to stumble upon that one pdf file on the internet, which showed that the Pathmark space has Weis written across it, if Weis even knew that the document was public to begin with. Also, the fact that Weis, KIMCO's client, has the policy of not commenting on their future real estate plans, means that KIMCO's most likely not going to officially comment either. Why would they want to upset their client?
Laura Madsen January 12, 2012 at 11:10 AM
Part 2: Also, since Weis's policy is that they don't comment on their future real estate plans, this is why I think anyone who has information about their interest in the former Pathmark space can't go public with it, including our town officials. Why upset someone (Weis) who's wanting to come to your town and help the local economy!? That said, you may ask "Why are there no 'Grand Opening' banners hanging up there yet?" Well, that's the new tenant's call as to when. I'm sure they need time to set up and get their ducks in line. That's why they have their own public relations department. They decide when, and how they want to do make their "official" announcement. Right now, all of this doesn't change that 1) Weis is interested in the Pathmark location and 2) KIMCO shows them as leasing the former Pathmark space. I think it's great that we have some advance information that is positive for the community.
Curt Carnes January 12, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Good Morning Laura I think you read into my post more than my words said. I tried to be careful to indicate my post didn’t say they are not coming. But the bottom line is until all contracts are signed, until all the shelves are filled, the cash resisters are turned on, and people are checking out, there is no store there. I used to be more of the -- “glass is half full guy,” but many years of life, and watching many deals that were “for certain” fall apart, I’ve become more of a -- “glass is half empty guy.” Regardless, at the EOD I do hope they or someone rents the place, and I do pray our economy improves to the point where all our rental property are rented, all our For Sale houses are sold, and anyone who wants a job finds a job that fits their abilities!
Laura Madsen January 12, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Hi Curt, Yep, I'm a glass half full girl, here. You pegged me right. :) But I agree: "I do hope they or someone rents the place, and I do pray our economy improves to the point where all our rental property are rented, all our For Sale houses are sold, and anyone who wants a job finds a job that fits their abilities!"
S.G. January 12, 2012 at 02:03 PM
I don't believe that the zoning along the bypass would accommodate the type of businesses that have been discussed here, such as supermarkets. Also, the limited bypass exits are designed to encourage the traffic that is going through Hillsborough (such as to Trenton or Princeton) - more express than local. However, when the Bypass is complete, I do wonder about 206 businesses that depend on drive-by traffic. On the other hand, how many of us have decided not to shop at a 206 business because we just don't want to get stuck in the current traffic.
Laura Madsen January 12, 2012 at 02:12 PM
S.G. - I'll admit, I've avoided driving by businesses on 206 by taking backroads to avoid traffic. But I usually do that when I'm in a hurry to get across town and don't have a specific 206 destination in mind. But if I need to go to a store on 206, I'll drive the drive, too, even if there is traffic.
Bruce Radowitz January 12, 2012 at 07:46 PM
I have to admit I agree with Curt. Might I suggest that we temper the pro/con remarks and commentary about the Company, Store and Location until someone, somewhere, does in fact, make it official. I think we would all hate to find out that a potential business read these comments or the ones found on NJ.com blog, and decided that Hillsborough is not a good fit.
Laura Madsen January 12, 2012 at 08:01 PM
On the other hand, they could see how much they would be a great fit! :)
Ellyce Orecchio January 14, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Ditto Curt. I couldn't have said it better.

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