SOMERVILLE, NJ – Beginning Jan. 7, there will be a new way of doing business in downtown Somerville.
The Downtown Somerville Alliance, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for marketing the downtown shopping district, has been restructured as a non-profit agency, and though it will have the same name, it will pursue a new agenda on behalf of its membership while working to expand its influence and secure a more dominant role in the ongoing economic revitalization of the downtown district.
The DSA will hold its annual reorganization meeting Monday, Jan. 7 in council chambers at police headquarters, 24 So. Bridge St. at 7:30 p.m., including the election of new officers.
Its Board of Directors has been pared down from 12 to 9 members, two of whom are permanent representatives: Kevin Sluka, borough administrator, and a member of the Borough Council. Councilwoman Jane Kobuta will fill that role this year.
The other seven members include Rick St. Pierre, the only holdover from the previous 12-member board. He had served as president of the DSA board and is the owner of Verve Restaurant, Bar and Lounge at 18 E. Main St.
“There will be a shift in the organization of the DSA, but there will not be a shift in its mission,” St. Pierre said.
The DSA oversees and promulgates policies affecting promotion, infrastructure, events, maintenance and other matters affecting commerce, traffic and development in the downtown district.
The Borough Council approved the nine members of the new DSA during its annual reorganization meeting at Somerville High School on New Year’s Day.
In addition to St. Pierre, Kobuta and Sluka, the new members are:
Tony Brokenborough, co-owner of Creative Chocolatez on Division Street; John Flores, who had run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Board of Education last year; Mark Aziz, manager of the Stickley-Audi furniture store on West Main Street; Jenn Pearson, a mortgage broker with Wells Fargo, 92 E. Main St. who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for Borough Council two years ago; Iris Frank, a partner in Village Brewing at 34 W. Main St., set to open in February and Michael Kerwin, a Somerville resident and president and CEO of the Somerset County Business Partnership.
The new DSA will operate as an independent entity, and will be able to seek out funding beyond the assessment it charges each property owner and merchant within the downtown Special Improvement District governed by the DSA.
The DSA’s annual budget of $650,000 is funded by assessments paid by property owners within the downtown district – that burden should be lessened once the DSA begins to apply for, and receive, corporate donations and grant money it will apply for, according to Granville Brady, Borough Council president and St. Pierre. The additional funds will be used to extend marketing efforts.
The new DSA will revamp its marketing to take advantage of the greater Somerset County business community, and will redesign its thrust to go beyond the downtown to seek out resources, according to Brady, the primary architect of the DSA makeover.
The DSA will operate independent of the Borough Council which will no longer appoint members to the DSA.
Greater emphasis will be placed on marketing and promoting the burgeoning retail and restaurant district as “Somerset County’s Downtown,” according to Brady and St. Pierre.
The new DSA will aggressively seek out partnerships and nurture working relationships with corporations in the surrounding area, and will work more closely with the Somerset County Regional Partnership, the Somerset Tourism Council and the Somerset County Business Partnership.
The ultimate goal is to heighten awareness of what the downtown has to offer and to drive more business and visitors to the borough.
The new DSA will relocate from offices on the second floor of Borough Hall to a storefront on Main Street to be closer to the merchants it serves, Brady said.
Merchants last year had complained of a lack of interaction with the DSA staff, with some saying no one from the DSA had actually visited their business; Brady and St. Pierre said.
That will change as soon as a new executive director is hired; a vote is expected at the Jan. 7 meeting, according to Sluka, with the new executive director expected to begin work by month’s end.
Monday night’s reorganization marks a new beginning for the DSA, which unraveled last year through a series of events that began in January with the resignation of its former president Tom Genova, who had held the position for 13 years; Pat Mannion, vice president, who had served 17 years on the DSA and RanD Pitts, owner of the Evolve clothing store who was appointed to the Borough Council to fill a vacancy. Pitts was elected to a full 3-year term in November.
Other resignations from the DSA board followed, making it difficult for the board to have enough members on hand to conduct business. Anthony Monetti attended one meeting after his appointment last year, and subsequently resigned.
Beth Anne Macdonald, former executive member of the DSA, resigned her paid position in August to take on a new job as Economic Development Director of Roselle Park in Union County.
Chris Blockus, hired to assist Macdonald and the DSA as full-time Program Coordinator in 2017 submitted his letter of resignation to Macdonald Aug. 24.
Exit interviews were not conducted with either Macdonald or Blockus, according to Pitts.
The revamped DSA as a non-profit entity will have a broader view of its stakeholders, and renewed commitment to merchants and property owners according to Pitts and St. Pierre.
“Whoever the new executive director is, I’m going to make sure to walk into every door on Main Street with that person, introduce him or her and emphasize they are at their beck and call; these are the people you work for, the property owners, the business owners,” Pitts said.
“Change is inevitable when we are going from a commission, which is what the DSA is essentially, to a non-profit, where the outreach and collaborations will be greater,” St. Pierre said. “The investment in Main Street and the community wll be greater than it has been and that brings changes,” he added.
Gone from the DSA board are Chris Petrosini, Leigh McLaughlin; Ron Aulenbach; Mallori Seader; Brittany Burton; Eric Staller; Greg Storms; Anthony DeSapio, Jr.; Rinaldo Linares, Lorenzo Deluca and Gina Stravic.