WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved the proposed 2016 Downtown West Orange Alliance budget, which totaled $207,000, at its Dec. 15 meeting.
Councilman Joe Krakoviak cast the sole vote against passing the budget, which is approximately $15,000 more than last year’s net operating budget of $192,000 despite the fact that the alliance actually came in under budget by $1,720.95 in 2015, according to Executive Director Megan Brill.
Brill explained during her presentation before the council that the increase is largely a result of the alliance’s desire to raise the allotted funds for marketing and promotions by $21,185 from last year, from $23,815 in 2015 to $45,000 2016. That amount includes the township’s promotional public access show “Discover West Orange” and host Joseph Fagan, who was moved into that category with a $3,000 pay raise for 2016. But it also reflects the fact that the alliance spent much more on marketing and promotions than it had budgeted for 2015 — $41,679.55 was budgeted — so next year’s designation grew accordingly.
The overall budget increase also came as a result of an increase in the allotment for administration and office expenses, from $65,460 in 2015 to $71,510 in 2016, Brill said. That includes a $5,000 increase in Brill’s own salary plus $1,000 designated for a summer intern and/or office assistant.
Meanwhile, Brill said the rest of the budget categories mostly saw decreases in their allotments. Economic revitalization was cut by $7,000, from $15,000 in 2015 to $8,000 in 2016. The amount spent on design and visual improvement was also lessened by $5,160, with the $69,040 designated for 2016 down from $74,200 in 2015. Additionally, the alliance set aside $8,450 for insurance and professional services for 2016, down by $75 from $8,525 in 2015.
Only the amount designated for organizational expenses remained the same at $5,000. All of that money will be used to make next year as successful as this year, according to Brill. And she said the alliance accomplished a lot to be proud of in 2015, including purchasing new parking signs for the Lando and Quigley lots, holding successful fundraising events such as the Edison Day-Street Fair and Mayor’s 5K Run, maintaining partnerships with local organizations, and attracting more community members and business owners to meetings and occasions than ever before.
Next year, the executive director said the alliance plans to continue garnering resident volunteers and include more on its committees. She said it also wants to finish its strategic plan, create a new business directory, increase its social media presence, and hold more district roundtables and networking opportunities. Plus, she said it would like to use HLN Enterprises’ redesigned facade on the corner of Main and Washington streets as a model for the rest of the downtown area’s appearance — utilizing its natural exterior colors and similar signage for other stores.
Above all, Brill said the alliance will make bringing in new businesses to fill the area’s approximately 40 vacant properties a priority in 2016, and it already has a strategy to do so — showing off West Orange’s positives while combating incorrect rumors about the township.
“What we found is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about West Orange,” Brill said. “We have a plan to create the material that we need to be able to hand it off to Realtors and property owners to say ‘This is why you need to rent in West Orange. Look at the demographics here. Look at the kind of money that’s being spent here because it’s great. And in addition to that, you have the downtown alliance.’”
That strategy has actually already been initiated, alliance board member Kevin Kruse said, with a survey conducted to find what types of businesses residents would like to see downtown. With those results, Kruse said the alliance will hire a consulting firm in January to create brochures and other materials to market the downtown area specifically toward those desired businesses and the Realtors who can attract them. Additionally, he said the organization will hold a Realtors’ open house to show real estate agents that West Orange is a legitimate alternative to nearby South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.
“When you talk to people who are in the business, this is not the first choice to take somebody who’s looking for a location for a business,” Kruse said, emphasizing the importance of dispelling the negative perspective people may have of the township by showing them benefits like the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Turtle Back Zoo and the Edison museum. “What we want to do is make it the first choice.”
But even with that strategy in place, Krakoviak still had concerns about the alliance’s focus. He specifically pointed out that the $8,000 designated for economic revitalization, which includes the funds used to carry out this plan, was the second-lowest budget allotment of all six categories.
Krakoviak also expressed discomfort about approving money that would go to “Discover West Orange,” which Brill said costs the alliance $19,500 a year — $1,500 to use the West Orange High School television studio and $18,000 for Fagan’s services as a scriptwriter, producer and host. The councilman said he was concerned that some of the episodes, such as last year’s coverage of Olympic gold medalist Ginny Duenkel’s return to her native West Orange, did not do enough to fulfill the show’s purpose of supporting the Special Improvement District.
“Part of the Downtown West Orange Alliance is funded by the SID property owners,” Krakoviak said. “And I’m having a hard time thinking that they’re getting their money’s worth if shows that are being funded talk about areas that aren’t part of the SID.”
Fagan responded that he knows promoting the downtown area is the most important part of “Discover West Orange.” At the same time, he said expanding beyond the township is bound to happen occasionally, which is why he always tries to strike a “delicate balance” in choosing episode topics. And this benefits the town, too, he said, by creating a sense of civic pride among residents learning about their community’s history.
Aside from that, Brill added that episodes highlighting West Orange businesses and organizations not technically within the downtown district — such as the recent show about Luna Stage — allow the alliance to form working relationships with them that can help everyone in the long run.
“I think that as long as we are dedicating enough time and resources to support the corridor, the stuff we end up doing outside of that is OK,” Brill said.
“The DWOA volunteer board of trustees is working very hard on improving the Main Street corridor,” Brill told the West Orange Chronicle via email. “We are energized by the town council’s passing of the budget and for our community’s support of our efforts. There is always more to do and we believe this budget and the plans we have developed will continue to move the Main Street Corridor in the right direction.”
The executive director further stressed that she always ensures that every dollar the alliance spends goes to benefit business owners, which is why she said the organization is currently considering eliminating the farmers market. Brill explained that, with only one farmer, the market is not attracting many shoppers, and the few residents who are frequenting the market are not visiting the downtown area afterward, which is really the reason the market is held in the first place.
Apart from Krakoviak’s reservations, the other council members expressed enthusiasm for the alliance’s budget and vision.
ouncilwoman Michelle Casalino, who previously served with Brill on the West Orange Board of Education, said it is great to work with her again and that she is excited to see the alliance’s mission benefit the whole township. Councilman Victor Cirilo agreed, adding that the council will continue to push the Edison Village project forward as a further stimulus to the Main Street corridor.
“I appreciate the majority of the Town Council passing our budget on Tuesday night,” DWOA Chairman John McElroy told the West Orange Chronicle via email. “The DWOA has never had a clearer vision of how to improve the Main Street Corridor and we are excited that the council is willing to participate in this vision and continues to support our efforts.”
Council President Jerry Guarino, who serves as the council liaison to the alliance, lauded the organization’s plan for the future as well, saying he was just as proud of the work the alliance did this year to raise the downtown district’s profile among residents, which he said will go a long way toward revitalizing the area.
“It’s spiking an interest,” Guarino said. “And when people get interested in an area, they want to come and see it for themselves.”
In the end Krakoviak remained the sole holdout in approving the budget, saying he’d like to see a better focus on the SID and more businesses brought to the area. Councilwoman Susan McCartney disagreed with that reasoning though, and asked how the alliance would be able to accomplish those things without the support of the council. McCartney voted to pass the budget, expressing her optimism that the Main Street corridor will improve under the alliance’s vision.
“I’m excited,” McCartney said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
“I’m disappointed Councilman Krakoviak voted against the budget after noting so many positives in our presentation,” McElroy told the Chronicle. “If we are truly going to improve the corridor we need everyone to support these efforts and that means residents, business and property owners and our elected officials.”