OPINION: Maplewood Should Study Economic Impact of P.O. Development on Existing Retail

by The Village Green
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The opinions expressed below are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Village Green or its editors.

There are five substantial retail spaces being added to the Village if the current Post Office Redevelopment Plan continues on the current path, along with 20 apartment units. At the last Planning Board Meeting, Eric Keller, the developer’s site plan engineer, shared that the planned retail spaces are “relatively small spaces.

This is NOT a true statement when the size of these proposed retail spaces are compared to existing retail merchants in the Village. I believe this is only one example of how out of touch the developer is with our local business community, and therefore, the PO development’s impact on our business community.

In reality, when compared to existing retail locations in the Village, these new retail spaces are considerably larger than most. In fact, if ranked by square footage these five new spaces would rank in the top five or ten in size of the 60+ retail spaces in the Village. You can find data related to all retail merchant locations, including the proposed retail spaces here(see Editor’s note below.)

I have voiced previously my concern that the prospective retail tenants in the proposed development will cannibalize existing local businesses that provide similar products.  Unfortunately, with the absence of any Economic Impact Study we can only rely on conjecture and opinions as to the actual impact of these larger businesses, some of which might have the advantage provided by national brands.

It continues to disappoint that neither the Township Committee, nor the Maplewood Village Alliance, has requested from the developer, nor initiated an objective economic impact study as part of this project’s requirements.

Consider the possibility of national brands such as Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts in this development. Either of these businesses will negatively impact existing locally-owned businesses such as Village Coffee, The Able Baker, The Maplewood Deli, and The Maple Leaf, in my opinion.

But, why are we relying on anyone’s opinion, including JMF’s, for such a critical project?

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Township Committee, the Maplewood Planning Board, and/or the Maplewood Village Alliance to require that JMF fund an economic impact study so we can predict, rather than opine, on the impact of these additional retail spaces in the Village?

Possibly a study will share that a series of smaller, locally-owned businesses at the relative size of current Village merchants will provide a better mix of businesses.

A mix of new business that complements existing businesses in order to help the Village business district thrive into the future, rather than an unbridled free market?  How do we know that the planned retail square footage, and the merchants being recruited by JMF will enhance rather than harm our existing retail business community?  Why the reluctance on the part of the Township Committee and the developer to share some possibilities?

We should be focusing on attracting new retail businesses that will complement existing local businesses, rather than JMF recruiting tenants with deep pockets that can pay the rent required for an over-sized retail location, and will lead to the highest sale price should the developer decide to sell the completed building.

As communities focus on economic development the common response has been the recruitment of outside industry. Unfortunately, this is the approach that seems to be destined for the Village – unless our elected and appointed representatives think more creatively, broadly, and longer-term. What about the support of existing businesses and entrepreneurs? None of them have received the relief the developer is receiving with its $300K of tax benefits and other considerations.

It is important to consider the contributions of small, locally owned businesses within our local economy. When a business like Dunkin’ Donuts moves into a community most, if not all, profits are sent outside of our local community. Local businesses can generate substantial gross income and often employ more than one local family member.

So, until an economic impact analysis to predict the best solution for this retail space is done, along with knowing the identity/business line for prospective tenants, I ask the Township Committee and the Maplewood Planning Board to limit the size of each retail space to no more than the average size of retail merchants in the same business line, already operating in the community. This, I believe is the best short-term solution to the future vitality of our business district.

I believe our elected representatives, on behalf of the current Village merchants, should solicit additional information from the developer. Questions the developer should be able and willing to answer:

Who are the prospective tenants that have signed, or may sign, a letter of intent?

What are the business lines of the most likely tenants? We know from one email that negotiations with prospective tenants have been in process since at least May 26, 2015.

What is the length of the leases you are anticipating for each retail space?

What is the projected rent for each of the retail spaces?

While these questions may not be required of most developers, this case of the sale of public land, and also the fact that it is such a significant presence, justifies asking and expecting. If the developer truly wants to be a model citizen in our community, he needs to say more about how he will accomplish the long-term value he says he can create. Telling us about bike share programs and “well building” features leaves the far more significant issues of the nature of commerce unanswered.

We deserve answers and additional information on such important aspects of the proposal. Please let your elected representatives know that this is what you expect from them.

(Editor’s note: Mr. Harvey writes that he created the estimates of local business sizes “by consulting tax maps as to location and shape of each property, and then using Google Earth Pro to estimate the square footage of each structure. In cases where more than one business occupies a structure, an educated guess was made of how the total square footage is divided.” Township Engineer Thomas Malavasi told VillageGreenNJ.com that he could not verify the information.)

 

John Harvey has lived in Maplewood for more than 30 years. John, his wife, Helen and two of their children have previously owned local Maplewood businesses in Maplewood.

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