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  • Writer's pictureLee Roth

Flemington's Real Economic Development Story

Social media doesn't offer a grounded account of history with ethical fact checking. Flemington has a colorful political history regarding economic development in the center of town. I wrote this blog post to shed light on the subject because I have seen many uninformed and depressing comments on social media.

To start, I want to see improvements and progress, not only because I own property in town, but also because I know firsthand what it took to get where we are today. With patience, effort, and compromise, we will get where we need to be.

The Backstory

In 1954 the Borough of Flemington commissioned a consultant’s report that addressed the anticipated trend of businesses fleeing the downtown. Market research uncovered the need for additional parking in the busiest locations sprinkled with small easy-access-lots for companies and places developers might choose to build. The report also included an evaluation of the environment, noting significant elements business owners and developers found attractive. The consultant proposed to inject the valued aspects into the downtown area, including improved traffic circulation.

The plan looked good on paper. However, a reluctant governing body didn’t want to use funds from the budget to support the project. And, they didn’t look for money other than in and coming from the local taxpayer’s pockets.

Confronting Tax Fears

The Hunterdon Shopping Center was under construction. People noted that shopping centers (there was the talk of another center to open across the highway) tend to lower the value of properties in the downtown area from an assessment valuation standpoint. A lowering of such valuation would result in the need to collect increased tax dollars from another area of the municipality — specifically residents and homeowners.

The 1954 Report Gathered Dust

During the time that passed, the report gathered dust between occasional readings by a few interested businesspeople, and other taxpayers and citizens. It was a dream, and nothing more. It seemed that no one was willing or able, or had the political will, to implement the plan.

Business Growth Shifted Outward

Businesses continued to leave. Growth happened around the town and in the adjacent township. As business prospects improved outward, they seemed to diminish in the center of town. An outcry validated the consultant’s trend projection and recommendations — more parking, better location, and better access to the parking in the business areas.

Business Growth Struggled Inward

  • Nevius Brothers stayed. They had stores in other towns that could carry the load, so they continued to maintain their original traditional Flemington store.

  • Karrow opened a store in another area in addition to his Flemington store.

  • Steve Sturgis moved his Central Liquors out to the edge of Flemington near the traffic of the shopping center.

  • Joe Colalillo moved his Shop-Rite out to the second shopping center, so our only large grocery store was gone.

  • The smaller A&P on Church Street, and Williams Market on Main Street, stayed for a time. Eventually, they each went out of business.

  • The sporting goods store, which is now my office, was thought to be about to move — it did move to the shopping center.

  • And, soon, the Arcay store was gone from the scene.

The Mayor Steps In

In the face of the continuing business trends from our downtown area, the then mayor and borough council recognized the need to improve the area. The 1954 report was again dusted off, and then I as the new Borough Attorney was asked to look into a way, and the mean, to finance several of the significant recommendations.

Federal and State Money - Not Taxes

An initial investigation indicated that Federal and State financial assistance might be available. We retained a specialized consultant, and a program was underway.

An Experienced Committee

First, a citizens committee was provided for, and the Mayor and members of the governing body selected five leading citizens of the area to lay the basis for such a program. The Mayor served as an ex-officio member and communicated ideas, as they developed, to the rest of the Borough Council.

The new Borough Engineer and I were each asked to serve as the professionals with the committee because of our demonstrated ability to be practical and to get things done — an ability to carry out an assignment without adding tediously detailed steps to be followed.

Ralph Mueller was one of the first selected. He offered political experience because of his service with the County Board of Freeholders. He had been one of the youngest persons elected to the Board of Freeholder. He was expected to know the Freeholders needs, as essential government members of the community, and to get their cooperation and participation. He also offered the financial experience of a successful businessman who had been using private capital to build up one of the communities best-known businesses, the Flemington Cut Glass Company.

John Nevius, a participant in the 1954 report, was selected. He offered the experience of a long-time community resident, business property owner, and retailer who had served on an original citizens parking committee. He worked on arrangements to have the Hawke property (the property the Freeholders declared surplus a few years ago — saying they wished to sell it) made available for parking at minimal costs to the Borough; an arrangement turned down by the Borough governing body in 1954 on the advice of their former attorney.

Charles Fischer joined the committee as a successful businessman, a funeral director who was the chairman of the Board of one of two local banks. He was experienced in dealing with people and in dealing with money. He was long known for putting the interests of the town ahead of his. He, like others on the committee, expended his funds improving his business and knew from that experience, and experiences with the bank, the need to spend money to improve opportunities. His son continues his funeral business today.

Ed Mach was a member of the committee because of his civic interest and because of the need to communicate the program to the citizens of the community. His experience in the communications industry, including his role as editor of the Hunterdon County Democrat, added value.

The final member of the committee was John Krauss, a homeowner in town, citizen member, and local voter. John joined the others as a man who also demonstrated the ability to get things done. He was a music teacher that combined creative and administrative talents to keep things moving forward. He taught at the local high school, first Flemington High School and then Hunterdon Central High School, where a building displays his name. He also owned a small gift shop on the edge of Turntable Junction

Two Government Paths To Consider For Funding

As finances were of prime importance the first step was to make application to the State and Federal governments for aid. An initial exploration of possibilities indicated that the area would be eligible for assistance, although the Borough lacked in certain requirements to be eligible.

The possibilities were sufficiently attractive to warrant further exploration. It appeared that once certified the Federal Government could be expected to contribute three-quarters of the project costs and the State of New Jersey might pay up to half of the remaining share. The Borough and the County would each contribute to the balance of the cost.

It was pointed out to the Borough that the zoning ordinance contained many examples of illegal spot zoning that should be corrected. We also advised that there should be a master plan to back up the zoning ordinance.

Federal planners required that these two deficiencies be met before certification could be given. They also required that other ordinance programs be undertaken to ensure that deterioration did not take place in areas helped by the Federal program. These requirements took about a year to implement. The last of these was the passage of a new master plan at the end of 1968.

Federal Eligibility Obtained

During the time these steps were taking place an initial application was filed with the Federal Government. Approval as to eligibility was obtained. At that point a new Federal program became available. Several members of the Borough Council, including Sol Karrow, owner of a successful men’s store, and members of the Citizens Committee, flew to Washington and met with Congressman Thompson. They learned of a more desirable program than the first, because of the speed with which the project might find itself in execution as compared to the first program.

A New Federal Program To Consider

The first program had required detailed planning for the total program that could have taken several years before any Federal money would be available for anything other than planning. The new program also required planning, but it allowed the program area to be divided into areas, or sub-areas, in which actual construction or execution could be carried out at the same time planning was accomplished in other areas requiring more detailed planning. Congressman Thompson told the local delegation they as good as had the money sought. They had several remaining steps to take.

As the need in the Borough was immediate, the Citizens committee recommended that the second program be implemented as soon as possible. The Mayor and Borough Council accepted this recommendation, and a new contract was entered into with the planner, and an application for the new program went into preparation.

The Final Step

The final step in the program, the one that needed to be accomplished for final eligibility, was for the municipal Planning Board to declare the borough to be a blighted area. Morristown had taken this required step and was in the process of receiving funding for their renewal program, a program they have entirely carried out.

Federal Funding Voted Down

Opposition to the Flemington program was developed by a small group of citizens supported by the former municipal attorney and his friends. They appeared at the planning board meeting and argued against the idea of thinking of Flemington as blighted. When the matter came to a vote, it failed by one vote at the planning board. The urban renewal program was then dead.

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