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  • Writer's pictureLee Roth

The Truth Behind Moving Flemington Forward - Timely Observations, Past and Present

Hour glass on its side

A little more than 50 years ago, when I was a young lawyer in Flemington, I was asked to address the members of the Flemington Women’s Club to talk about Flemington. There was a great deal of activity going on at the time.

The business people and the Government of Flemington had recognized the need to do something in an effort to bring Flemington back to the position and status of the glorious community, the center of government, commerce, and social life that it had always been.

The speech was so important to me, the opportunity so important to me as a young lawyer starting his own practice, and the people I was to speak to were the wives of the most important people in the community, that I wrote my speech out and read it at the meeting.

I have a copy of what was said and offer it here, for prospective and for the information for those interested, and for comparison with what we see going on in Flemington 50 years later.

I said the following:

To look ahead to see where we are going, without looking back to see where we have been, would leave us without a reference point; something that we need, because everything is relative.

You know the story of Scrooge and Christmas — it was after he had looked back to see what his life had been, and after he had looked at his life in the present, that he could see where he was heading. In his case, the prospects were so frightening that he was compelled to change direction to save himself.

When I hear or read his story, I wonder if he might not have continued on to personal disaster if the relative differences, or the contrasts, between his past and future did not bring him to his senses and put him on the right track to the future.

I think of the frog who sat in the pan of water on the stove as it slowly got hotter and hotter. He was not uncomfortable as it got warmer. He enjoyed the increasing warmth. But finally it got so warm, and he was by then so lethargic, that he could not get out of the water and he boiled to death.


Today we discuss and consider the present and the future of Flemington, primarily the Borough of Flemington, but generally the area that has come to be known as Flemington. I say we are here to discuss, because as the format of the program has been explained to me, I am to state my personal observations and other guests will have an opportunity to comment on my observations, and they will make observations of their own. Then the group will be exposed to the questions of each other and questions from the audience.

I must first indicate that as for my part of the program, the views that I express are entirely my own and although I am the attorney for the Borough of Flemington, and have been the attorney for the Borough Planning Board and Board of Adjustment, and am attorney for the Flemington Urban Renewal Advisory Committee, and am a member of the Flemington Merger Study Committee appointed by the Mayor, and am Chairman of the Flemington Facelift Committee and one of its original members, I do not appear here in any of these capacities.

I admit that my views are based on my experiences in these various capacities, but I emphasize that I represent none of these groups in appearing before you today.

A Look Back

First, let us take a look back. Flemington has a rich tradition as a small town that has been the center of economic life in Hunterdon County. Flemington was an early important shopping center — it early acquired the County offices as they expanded and it was one of the first municipalities with a sewer and water system for the protection of the health of its citizens in the County.

Flemington was the home of the only County newspaper. It contained the only theatre and one of the early schools that was larger than one room. Flemington is the home of the Cut Glass Company and Stangl Pottery which have always been important tourist attractions as well as commercial enterprises.

In its early days, Flemington had important citizens who brought to it intangible tax bases that allowed money to be spent for governmental projects, for the development of the Borough, and the betterment of its citizens without directly taxing its citizens. Flemington had, and was, everything to all people.

There was a brief time when Flemington cut itself off from its neighbors, perhaps because of its independent affluence, perhaps for other reasons which you may know better than I. Physically the Borough of Flemington was surrounded by Raritan Township with no place for Flemington to grow, but at that time, no need to grow.

Flemington continued to be the important center of Hunterdon County. In 1954. a study was made, at the direction of and under contract with the Flemington Borough Council, to determine what must be done to improve Flemington’s position as the economic center of the County. By this time, competition was beginning to develop in other areas although there were no operating shopping centers immediately outside of the town [The first appeared in 1956]. There was no competition with the downtown area.

The suggestion that parking was needed and should be made available, and that the streets be improved as to alignment and pattern, was considered, but the Blomquist Report was shelved as too expensive, or too drastic, or for whatever reasons various people had for ignoring the plan. A parking committee was formed, partly as a result of the study, but it was given no power and no funds. It generally received no public support.

Flemington became a good neighbor and began spreading its affluence by joining in common systems and facilities with Raritan Township in the fields of education, and the courts, and land fill sites, etc. Soon the merger of all facilities in the two municipalities was under consideration. By this time, Raritan had grown in numbers of people, ratables, and in its business community, so that the relationship between the communities became one of more mutual help and less the earlier “Big Brother” help from Flemington to Raritan.

Flemington Is The Center Of Commerce

Today, Flemington is still the center of commerce in the area and is still the center of government and much the center of importance. For example, Flemington was needed in making a sewer system reasonable and feasible in Raritan Township.

Flemington is the center of the tourist trade with a national reputation because of the Flemington Cut Glass and the Stangl Pottery businesses and the Flemington Fur Company. The fur company has been greatly strengthened and is one of the most important industries and best known in the County today. The newly developed small shopping centers of Paul Bunyon Village and Turntable Junction have become almost as well known as the older more established attractions.

The agricultural industry in the Borough has declined in importance to the point of being almost non existent. The once long lines on Park Avenue waiting to get into the auction market are not seen today.

Last year a group of interested citizens got into a discussion of our town and came to the conclusion that (1) the old traffic and parking study by Blomquist should come off the shelf and be looked at again, (2) a number of areas of the town might best be described as “tired”. and (3) despite the tendency of people to wait until it was too late, or almost too late, to change their direction and save themselves, it was time to do something about Flemington to provide for it as bright and important a future as it had a past.

A Look At Main Street

An area of concentration seemed to logically begin with the Main Street business area. Too often any group of merchants, or any other group of citizens, wait until they are in dire need of help before they consider efforts to help themselves. (Remember the frog.)

Several businesses had recently moved from Main Street and it became evident that others might move if a change in direction was not provided. Perhaps the example set by my associates and myself with the renovation of the old Barden Building at 8 Main Street, set some of the group thinking. Often all that it takes is an example of a positive approach to get other people interested in participating.

I contacted a friend in Bound Brook who was then involved in a program of self help for the merchants in the downtown Bound Brook area. I learned through him of a similar project in Newton, New Jersey, and of the man who had helped each of these New Jersey municipalities, following a successful program of his own in Doylestown in Pennsylvania.

A group of Flemington businessmen consisting of Ralph Bird of the Chamber of Commerce, John Nevius of Nevius Bros, Terry Mc Connell, a bank officer and Jaycee officer, Ed Mack, a newspaper editor and myself had lunch with the man who has inspired Newtown and Doylestown. We were so taken by his enthusiasm, after touring his town to see what had been done, we became enthusiastic ourselves and contracted with him on the spot for his help in getting Flemington started in a similar program.

We had little difficulty raising the money to pay his costs from a group of local merchants, banks and the general business community. It was the generosity of our two banks., of Sol Karrow, of Nathan Blaher, of Nevius Bros., of the Fur Company, of Stangl Pottery, of the Glass Company, and of Turntable Junction and the Hunterdon County Democrat that got our project started.

Facelift Committee

A number of people have already completed projects suggested by the Facelift Committee, as our committee came to be called, and we are told that a number of others in all areas of town are on the way. Mr. Popkin was one of the first to complete a project exactly as suggested by the committee.

I remember seeing him stand in front of his store comparing the artist rendering with what his contractor was doing for him. Milt Levine of the Fabric Center has expressed his interest in renovating the outside of his building now that he has completed the inside.

Chamber of Commerce President Bill Mc Creery, although not located on Main Street, has ordered pictures taken of his building and has asked for recommendations and a rendering from the committee. Don Shuman has a project under way at the present time and the Stothoff Brothers have already completed part of a renovation program of their building, the old Deats Building. Others have made positive moves, or plan them.

The Committee is still active and the members of the core committee continually meet informally and continue to call on those who have expressed their interest in the project and in being a part of the project.

We hope to have an assessment of progress on the self help part of our downtown renewal on the anniversary of our public announcement of the program. Perhaps we will be able to get together all of those originally interested, with others who have since expressed their interest, and try and get other projects going in the spring and summer.

Borough Governing Body Involved

The Borough governing body has done its part by cooperating, and indicating its cooperation, in many directions. Official interest was expressed in a directory sign program when Mrs. Margolis of the Sample Shop asked for a variance for a sign. The Mayor and Council gave their blessings for a temporary sign for her to be followed by a directory sign program. I don’t know if that program is going forward at the present time under the leadership of the Jaycees as planned at one time, or if it is still waiting for leadership to gain its momentum.

The governing body has also passed a series of ordinances requiring that buildings be maintained in a safe condition and that buildings be painted following a State guide and code made available to us. Half of the municipality has now been inspected under this ordinance and program. We can expect to see improvements in the appearance of a number of buildings, and in the safe condition of a number of buildings, during the next three to six months.

The Mayor ordered a study to be made of available Federal and State funds for the purpose of continuing the old study of traffic and parking which had become somewhat obsolete by change in business character, etc. And he has asked us to bring the Blomquist study up to date and perhaps to seek funds through Federal and State means to implement a large part of that study as revised.

A consultant firm, Kehayas Associates, the same people who made a lot size study for Raritan Township, has been retained by the Borough and an Urban Renewal Citizens Study Committee has been appointed from among some of our leading citizens and business leaders to work with the consultant, in making the study, and to begin implementing the program. Federal officials from Philadelphia have visited and toured Flemington both during the week and on weekends and are preparing their reports on their observations. Our consultant has filed preliminary applications and has been in constant touch with the Federal officials.

Urban Renewal Program

The preliminary application, in connection with the Federal and State programs, calls for an expenditure for some four and one half million dollars to be spent in the Borough. Seven eighths of this cost will come from Federal and State sources. The one eighth local share will be paid by local taxes, but will be contributed in the form of local improvements already planned and budgeted in the long term capital program of the Borough. If the application and study is approved, the program should be under way in Flemington within two years and shortly thereafter we should find improved parking and access within the municipality.

The Urban Renewal Program is related to Flemington’s position as the center of County government. Improved access to and improved parking in Flemington, added to its other natural advantages, should continue its being the most desirable location for County government. Coupling this with the possibility of making land available through the program to the County government at the cost of cleared land alone, should be very attractive.

The County at one time in the recent past proposed spending, and in fact had an option on the old ShopRite property for some $903,000.00 with unknown renovations costs that might have exceeded $50,000.00. There were objections to this proposal because of the limited gain for an expenditure of this size, and I think perhaps more logically because taking that proposed location in the Borough would be removing a prime existing commercial location for use that might create a traffic problem without resultant profit to the business community.

I am sure there was never any intention of telling, or indicating to the County government, that they should get out of the Borough. The hope has always seemed to me to be that they would stay, but stay in a reasonable location. Somerville, for example, has the County complex of Somerset County located at the end of the business district and extending more than a city block from the Main Street frontage.

The same is true of New Brunswick in being the home of the County government for Middlesex County. I think Flemington would like to see the same development here. The problem is where to locate. Fortunately for the Hunterdon County government, land is still much, much less expensive and more available in Flemington than it is in either Somerset or Middlesex Counties.

I don’t think that County government should take the property we are now on, or the park between here and the County buildings. I favor leaving this oasis in the middle of our concrete city as it develops. I personally favor a location diagonally across the park from the existing County buildings, with cooperation from the governing body of the Borough of Flemington, to make this property available, would provide a logical and economical location for County government.

The area I suggest, or several others within very easy walking distance from the existing County complex, in sufficient area to meet future County needs for most functions, and in a location that would not interfere otherwise with orderly growth of the business community, can be made available through this program.

The availability of this program, with its Federal funds and the opportunity it offers, has been made known to the Freeholders by the Borough’s consultant. Perhaps the County government will want to maintain its tradition of being a part of Flemington and perhaps they will avail themselves of this program to the aesthetic and economic satisfaction of all concerned.

Flemington Not Yet Fully Developed

Flemington, contrary to the belief of many, is not yet fully developed. Perhaps compared to many outlying municipalities, it is fully developed. But we see, in looking at apartment projects that have been proposed, or built, or are in various stages of approval, but not yet built, potential for development. One example is the Urbach project on Cemetery Hill. Another example is the relatively recent completion of the Madison Arms project on Broad Street.

A great deal of interest has been shown in a study made for the Borough by Tony Wiles, former County planner, and now full time planner for Middlesex County. Tony’s report justifies a continual gradual growth and shows the requirement for an increase in apartment development.

The most surprising part of his report to me is the number of acres available for development within the physical limits of the Borough. I believe that more apartments will be built on less ground, closer to the business area to benefit that area, and the merchants, and to make possible comfortable living for the young marrieds who do not yet have children and to provide more convenient apartment and living facilities for the older family that has raised its children.

Flemington has the shopping area and the facilities and utilities to handle such development. We know the demand exists, and I am sure it will be filled in Flemington.

Flemington Raritan Merger Study Committee

It is possible that Flemington and Raritan will extend their mutual cooperation to the point of complete merger, both physical and political. Six months or a year ago, I would have ruled out the possibility of merger, because the Township officials would not support their merger study committee with funds as Flemington had done.

They had appointed a very good committee (I know because I worked with it during its short month of life) but the official attitude was to avoid the decision and let an election decide whether or not there would be a study.

A year was lost because of this delay, but by close vote, the citizens called for a study. The study will be made, and I for one welcome the exploration of the attitude and the outlook of the citizens of the two municipalities. I would like to see the hard facts of economic involvement that should be part of such a study.

I think that the government officials will rise to the level required to be above protecting their individual power positions and interests, and will face the issues squarely of the plus and minuses of such an involvement. I feel that only by approaching such a study with an open minded attitude will the municipalities benefit as they should.

I prepared a brief study at the direction of the Flemington Borough Council on the relationship between the municipalities in the elementary school system. The study showed that in some areas, Flemington was paying a bigger share of costs than seemed reasonable.

The conclusion was that an adjustment should be made to keep in existence the reasonable balance envisioned when the relationship was entered into. Equally important to me, the study indicated the complication and time involved in preparing such a study. Knowing that we rarely get more than we pay for, it seems unlikely that we can get a satisfactory amateur study, or a cheap one, that will do a satisfactory job.

There is little that can be said about the direction that the new study committee will take, because it is so new that it has not had its first meeting. Also, the consideration is novel.

I feel that whether or not the study shows that a merger would be wise from the view of both municipalities, the study itself will provide an introspective view into our two governing bodies and their efficiency, and the relationship of these municipalities, which exploration will be of value to all of us.

Rally People To Accomplish What Must Be Done

I suppose that I might be expected to say by some that “these are difficult times and we face grave problems”, but I choose rather to say that we have faced our problems and it is not a matter of waiting and seeing, but is a matter of doing all of the many things that have been started. Sometimes I wish that we had graver problems in Flemington because with graver problems it is easier to rally the people to accomplish and support what must be done.

Fortunately, Flemington’s citizens, and Flemington’s government, has not found it necessary to wait until their problems are beyond hope before taking action.

You perhaps have noticed that people will come out to oppose a plan, or program, or proposal, and that they are most vocal when they object, and you no doubt have observed that it is rare indeed that a group of people will come out and gather together to get information or to support a program of good works. Although Flemington’s citizens are often vocal objectors, there is also a strong group of citizens in Flemington who support good work, and more important, participate in its accomplishment.

Our governing body, our Facelift Committee, our Urban Renewal Study Committee, and our Merger Committee all need your attention, your suggestions and your support.

We need to put your efforts behind improving our town, not because it is desperately in need of improvement, but because we want our town to be better, in fact, to be the best it can be. There is always room for improvement in all of us, at least until we are dead.

I would like to thank Mrs. Tompkins, the Chairman of your Civics and Public Welfare Committee and Mrs. Scammell, your President, for inviting me here today. It has been my pleasure to have this opportunity to talk to you and to participate in your program. I hope that I have stimulated some questions and some activity.


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