A Main Street makeover for a New Jersey town has caught the eye of the rest of the country.
It's a big honor for the small town of Metuchen, which was just named among the winners of the Great American Main Street Award. The prize caps off a big turnaround for the town, which just seven years ago saw one in every five storefront vacant, victims of the Great Recession that left the downtown area on the ropes.
Downtown Metuchen’s Main Street is just two blocks long, but it's now vibrant and booming. Pastry Lu’s is one of the new businesses that have filled nearly every empty space, and the co-owner said they are "absolutely" there to stay, and are planning on doing more locations with different businesses.
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Ever since the town created a special improvement district nearly seven years ago — with an extra tax on downtown property, typically of maybe $1,000 a year or so — the downtown has seen a revitalization.
"When we say proud, we’re proud of who we are and we’re proud of our community for helping us get to where we’ve gotten," said Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch, addressing how the town has gotten the 22 percent vacancy down to just 4 percent in 2023.
Even he was caught by surprise by just how much the town was able to turn around in a relatively short time.
"I bet we could improve things, but the idea of going from 22 [percent] to 4, think about that. It’s just incredible," Busch said.
The town was one of three winners of the award, along with Danville, Virginia, and Florence, South Carolina.
Leaders especially praise the volunteers who help stage a dozen events a year at a plaza a block off Main Street, which is flanked by brand new apartments that bring more life downtown.
Borough workers put up the award signage on the marquee of the truly dusty and long-abandoned Forum Theater, which was once a vaudeville showcase. Now there are hopes to make it the center of a new arts district two blocks from the business district, thinking the water-stained walls can give way to a playhouse.
And across the street from the theater sits another small business that the town bet big on seven years ago, Angie Restaurant. That risk clearly has paid off, as new restaurants have popped up on side streets.
"You look around you — the bones are excellent. You’ve got a 100-year-old theater, Victorian homes and we’re at the hub of activity here," said Dawn Mackey, the executive director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance.
Especially with a major mall just two miles away, the small town of just over 15,000 people is clearly punching above its weight with a great American Main Street. So how do they plan on celebrating? With a street party, of course, set for Juneteenth weekend — a week after downtown pride and a week before the Juneteenth celebration.