Zach Patberg of The Asbury Park Press reports: About 25 years ago, the sidewalks of Lakewood Township’s downtown were repaved with quaint burnt-red brick. The $30 million renovation was meant to give a more historic look to the 10 or so blocks up Clifton Avenue that town leaders hoped to solidify as the shopping destination for outsiders from across Ocean County.
Since then, movement toward that goal has ebbed and flowed.
Crime has certainly dropped. Fewer dilapidated houses blemish its borders. And a steady traffic of hurried strides and pushed strollers has weathered the brick over the years.
Yet the district is fraying, according to many merchants and economic development officials. It struggles to keep its own businesses and clientele, much less attract outsiders. Loiterers at times seem to outnumber shoppers. And the newest addition has not been a storefront but a resource center for ex-convicts.
“We want to turn the downtown into what it was originally intended to be 25 years ago,” said Hershel Herskowitz, the owner of Toys For Thought on Third Street.
To that end, he and five other businessmen have formed the Lakewood Downtown Merchants Commission, a township-sanctioned first of its kind. So far, they have called for rezoning the district to limit the types of retailers, modifying parking rules, discouraging loiterers and putting a spotlight on “suspicious businesses.”
The panel does not speak for everyone. Like any concentrated commercial hub, no consensus is seamless. And it is not the first time merchants have gathered in the name of revitalization.
When Ben Heinemann, owner of BP Graphics, started calling meetings a few years ago to brainstorm plans for a retail mall anchored by a five-level parking garage at Town Square, a faction of merchants balked. That same faction, Heinemann claims, now runs the commission that has yet to invite him to participate in any discussions. In turn, Herskowitz, the body’s unofficial chairman, remains bitter at not being invited to Heinemann’s meetings.
Nonetheless, the commission has, it seems, gained the ear of township officials and hammered together a framework that could indelibly alter the way Clifton Avenue operates.
“It is a concern that legitimate businesses will continue to move away if we don’t do something,” said Steven Reinman, Lakewood’s economic development director.
Downtown rezoning to ensure variety?
Such huddling is common in cities such as New York, with its Diamond District and Restaurant Row. But that’s not for Lakewood, according to the merchant’s commission. At its second meeting Dec. 15, the board proposed rezoning the downtown to allow only restaurants and durable retail, which excludes perishable goods businesses such as supermarkets and service businesses such as a salon. A township attorney suggested being more precise. The inclination now is to merely limit the number of same-theme stores.
“We’d like to give some focus and logic to the makeup,” Reinman said. “We’re not trying to exclude a type of business, just how many. It might be no more Laundromats, or no more money transfers.”
Reinman also is working on a “rebranding” campaign for the township. He hopes to have a public relations firm hired in a few weeks and a revamped municipal Web site by Jan. 1.
“It’s a misnomer that no one is here,” he said. “But we’re not satisfied with the way it is – with that perception.”