ENGLEWOOD — With empty storefronts on Palisade Avenue, the city and commerce organizations are looking for ways to bring businesses and customers back downtown.
The growth of e-commerce, dwindling foot traffic and parking issues all have had an impact on the city's downtown, which extends along Palisade Avenue between the monument at Tenafly Road and the hill starting at Lydecker Street. However, an anticipated light rail line, new city residential properties and a new website are all being eyed among efforts to help strengthen the downtown.
The proposed extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line, which connects with PATH trains that run into Manhattan, would run north from North Bergen into Ridgefield, Palisades Park and Leonia, and would have three stops in Englewood. Officials and transportation advocates are hopeful that the long-delayed project could be funded under the newly replenished state Transportation Trust Fund.
But while the light rail line may bring traffic and business to downtown, Carol Rauscher, president of the Englewood Chamber of Commerce, said the project is a long way off.
"If we're waiting for the light rail, we're going to have a ghost town," Rauscher said. "Every month that goes by that we don't do something is hurting us."
Online shopping continues to have a major impact on business, she said, and is not unique to Englewood, as business districts across the state face similar challenges, and retail stores — both chain and family-owned — have been unable to compete.
hoppers are increasingly turning to the Internet, Mayor Frank Huttle said, as new services such as Amazon Prime make such shopping easier and deliveries faster.
"When you can call Amazon Prime for a bottle of wine or pair of shoes, and they deliver the same day, that's a challenge," Huttle said.
In years past, residents of Englewood and nearby towns would come downtown, shop for a day and visit local restaurants for lunch or dinner, said Zeki Yesilyurt, a manager at Blue Moon Mexican Café on East Palisade Avenue, who cited rising rents and the growth of online shopping as reasons for changes downtown.
Now, while the restaurants still do trade — "People still have to eat," Yesilyurt said — with fewer retail stores, walk-in business for restaurants like Blue Moon has gone down during the lunch hours when people would be shopping.
Stephanie Greco, a commercial real estate agent who manages downtown properties in Englewood, said restaurants are a good fit, particularly with venues such as bergenPAC, whose patrons often dine before or after shows. Restaurants and service businesses like salons or cleaners also have an advantage, she said.
"To compete against the Internet, you have to offer something you can't get online," Greco said. "That's the challenge for all the downtowns today."
While rent for longstanding tenants might go up, rent for new commercial tenants has been declining for several years, she said. A space that might have cost $45 per square foot three years ago might now rent for $30.
The chamber of commerce has a number of ideas to entice shoppers.
Among them, Rauscher said, is bringing in Bob Phibbs, a national retail expert who previously spoke to local businesses about sales and customer service, to address social media and marketing.
"We're not going to have the foot traffic we had 10 years ago," Rauscher said. "That's gone, so we'll have to do things differently."
She added that the chamber approached the Gannett Co., which owns North Jersey Media Group, the company that publishes The Record, to see if its advertising department could advise businesses on using social media and reaching new customers through advertising.
The chamber also is looking to create a comprehensive website, pending approval and funding from the Englewood Economic Development Corp., a group that promotes commercial development downtown. Drawing people to concerts at bergenPAC and such events as the sidewalk sale and Latino Festival can help drive new customers to downtown, Rauscher said. Shoppers also would be able to search by categories for shops and merchandise, making it easier to find what they're looking for, she said.
Another hurdle hindering shoppers has been parking. Metered parking creates an inconvenience, Yesilyurt said, as shoppers have to go back and fill the meter after only an hour when parking on the street.
"Parking is inconsistent in timing," Rauscher said, adding the chamber is looking to make it two hours, with some 15-minute spots and a few three-hour spots.
Many people, she pointed out, aren't aware of a phone application that alerts shoppers when their parking time is up at the city's parking garages and allows them to add more time without returning to their cars.
Part of the master plan is to create a shared parking strategy for downtown, Huttle said, noting he wants the city to work on that soon.
Huttle also said he wants to bring city merchants together to coordinate and standardize hours, with the possibility of extending hours on evenings when there are special events.
The city's downtown also will benefit from new customers, Rauscher said, as the chamber plans to reach out to apartment dwellers, older residents and other populations that don't typically come to the Palisade Avenue corridor.
"We're a lot more than Englewood," Rauscher said. "Eighty percent of people who use the stores and come to town are not from Englewood, so we can't be narrow with what we're doing."
Another effort is to improve the streetscape, Huttle said, including adding bump-outs to make crossing the road easier, and new sidewalks and improved lighting to make the downtown corridor more pedestrian-friendly.
Charles Simpson, the new president of the Englewood Economic Development Corp., said the organization plans to work with the chamber and the City Council to bring more people downtown and to give businesses incentivesto develop properties for commercial and residential use.
"If you put it there, people will come," he said. "They will not have to travel along Route 4 to the malls in order to get the necessities for their living in Englewood. It's an all-encompassing strategy we're looking at, working with every stakeholder."
The city, organizations, professionals and businesses have to come together, and that will be how Englewood improves its downtown, Huttle said.
"When the world changes, you have to look for solutions," he said.