How Spring Street could thrive: survival for small towns in a new urban age

Newton is a small town in the northwest corner of New Jersey, where preserved forests, protected open space and state-backed farm land has curtailed suburbanization to maintain the foundation of what could be a thriving community in an urban age. It has a dense Main Street corridor and the anchor institutions of a 250-year-old town, as a gateway to this beautiful rural region. It also happens to be where I grew up.

Elsewhere in Sussex County, there are lake houses and golf courses that attract vacationers and tourists (and reporters) from the New York City market — that’s where my parents and other families came from. Though I believe there are unique assets, I also think this story is one that will relate to communities throughout the country and certainly elsewhere in the U.S. Northeast.

(On this subject, I submitted this Letter to the Editor (full submission here) to the community newspaper, the New Jersey Herald.)

Newton is the Sussex County seat in northwest New Jersey

There are problems too, of course, for small towns.

  1. Urbanism trends — In case you haven’t heard, the white flight that changed U.S. cities in the last half of the 20th century has stopped and reversed. We’re building today with urbanism in mind. That means young professionally-minded people (and increasingly older residents) are leaving suburban sprawl, who are being replaced by those leaving more attractive communities. Places like Newton spent the last generation or two building for sprawl, while neglecting its dense roots. That might be why its population is declining, with 7,500 residents in 2010 after an all-time high in 2000.
  2. Taxes — New Jersey is one of the two states with the highest tax rates in the country and homeowners in Sussex County pay more than two percent of the value of their home in property taxes, the expensive half of the spectrum. In Newton, the average residential homeowner bill is more than $7,000 [PDF]], which is lower than wealthier communities that have fewer small homes like the older housing stock here, which has one of the five highest millage rates in Sussex County, most of which goes to schools.
  3. Infrastructure — Tying together the two from above, Newton, like other similar communities, has the offerings built for a rapidly aging population and not for its next wave of potential residents. This means its NJ Transit connectivity to New York and Philadelphia, dense corridor development and amenities that young people crave. This also represents the question of poverty: Newton and its corridors, because it is the seat of county government, is home to much of the region’s residents who are being served by the judicial, disability, social security and other government programs. That’s not itself a problem but it does create strain, income segregation and, frankly, reputation challenges.

This came to my mind when I heard that a good friend of mine, with whom I grew up and who had bought a house, got married and had a baby on the same street we went to high school, was selling his house. Taxes were the big reason, he told me, knowing he could spend a few thousand less nearby, but I know those are other two reasons are challenges too: what he gets for being in his county’s primary hub for resources, entertainment and amenities isn’t worth the high tax burden.

Believing that losing the next generation of young people is the death knell for the town I was raised in, I think more and more that town leaders need to learn from the trends and conversations that are smartly pulled together in ‘The End of the Suburbs,’ book by Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher.

In 1870, the corner of Spring Street, at left, and Main Street was already the main commercial corridor for Newton, as seen in this photograph from 'Images of America: Newton.' The book notes that soon after Samuel Johnson began a dry goods business that became a major anchor of what developed as the town square.
In 1870, the corner of Spring Street, at left, and Main Street was already the main commercial corridor for Newton, as seen in this photograph from ‘Images of America: Newton.’ The book notes that soon after Samuel Johnson began a dry goods business that became a major anchor of what developed as the town square.

Newton’s town square is a small patch of grass and a Civil War statue, surrounded by the town’s original beautiful Greek Revival courthouse and abutted by the intersection of Spring and Main streets. Spring Street itself has been the town’s primary commercial corridor for more than 150 years, even before a railroad connected the town more widely. Its two-screen movie theater — where I spent many an angsty pre-teen night — has been transformed into a fledgling live arts venue, at least two popular restaurants, a greasy spoon diner, some small boutiques, an aging grocer and, like Main Streets everywhere, empty storefronts. There are pretty Victorian homes within walking distance and other larger resources within a short drive (or bicycle ride) — a hospital, a community college, big box retailers, libraries, public schools (of which I am a product) and the like. There are also real jobs, including county and town government, law firms, a bank and other small offices along the square, creating daytime use.

Newton is also the gateway to Sussex County, which has the state’s highest peak, beautiful hiking and camping, state parks, horse farms, produce stands, wildlife, fishing and other eco- and agri-tourism opportunities. (You’re also 45 minutes from Manhattan and 90 miles from Philadelphia.)

In short, if there are problems to overcome, there are lots of reasons for Newton to succeed.

Here are a number of ideas to meet the goal of attracting and retaining the next generation of young residents in Newton:

First, as you’ll find, all of these thoughts are predicated by this assumption: the next wave of economic development will be based on density to spark community and retain talent and require mixed-use, day-and-night offerings. Here, that will happen in Newton and, more specifically, along Spring Street.

  • Commercial Corridor Development — I credit Newton township leaders for investing in Spring Street — growing up, I do remember the sidewalks being redone, the signs being put up and lamp posts being updated and the annual holiday parades. I wonder if they’ve tried to think even bigger. I’m endlessly amazed by the story of how, in South Philadelphia, East Passyunk Avenue went from dead to destination with the help of an overly aggressive economic development group (backed by a later discredited state senator) that bought properties on its main street so it could mess with the market: below-market-rent for destination businesses, developing mixed-use and pursuing event programming. Spring Street should have storefronts that won’t bring in revenue yet but will develop the reputation of the corridor: an active coffee shop, local art galleries, a local caterer. Find people who are doing this kind of work already, who have a community already and give them space to attract.
  • Small Business Competition — Have the sleepy local Chamber of Commerce raise $10,000 to $20,000, partner with the SBDC and do a small business competition (or supplement one that already happens) to offer, in addition to the cash, free Spring Street storefront use for a six months or a year and then below market rate after. Focus on a venture that is risky, unique and will attract people.
  • Focus local membership groups — Like any town, there is a Rotary Group, the aforementioned Chamber, the Sussex County Arts & Heritage Council, the regional Small Business Development Center and others that should all be on board for Newton generally and Spring Street specifically being a natural leader and gateway to Sussex County at least, if not vying for leadership in northwest New Jersey (though beautiful Hacketstown is a bigger brother, where the regional SBDC is located). These groups need their talking points about Newton and Spring Street.
    Thor Labs, a fiber optics manufacturer, is buying up more property near its Sparta Avenue anchor, according to this infographic from the New Jersey Herald as of March 2014.
Thor Labs, a fiber optics manufacturer, is buying up more property near its Sparta Avenue anchor, according to this infographic from the New Jersey Herald as of March 2014.
  • Small towns need anchor employers — Newton Hospital, Sussex County Community College and the big box retailers down Rt. 206 are likely among the largest sources of employment for nearby residents. When biomedical manufacturer Thor Labs decided to make their expanded headquarters a newly developed location on an empty lot along Sparta Ave, a short walk from Spring Street, there was little question of how big an opportunity it was. There are hundreds of employees in ‘downtown Newton.’ (There’s a famous story that the town wouldn’t budge on tax help to attract an M&M-Mars plant that ended up choosing Hacketstown, where it has also expanded a public facing store in recent years)
  • Supplement the big with the new — I find it fascinating that mayors of big cities like New York and Philadelphia are obsessively chasing early-stage business growth, perhaps as much now as they do large companies. So while Thor Labs is a transcendent opportunity, there should also be an effort to find the next generation of employers here. If the Chamber and SBDC are helping to create them, you should be finding homes for them in Newton, particularly along the dense corridor.
Grande Villagio is a proposed 54-unit development in Newton, NJ
  • Mixed-use and mixed-income development — In response to Thor Labs, which as seen above is buying up property to create a campus-like feel, a new development is coming in some marsh land where I used to play hide and seek with friends behind an old convenience store. Of the 54 units, depicted above, six are for low-income and the price points are larger lower, focusing on a young professional class, many of whom could walk to Thor Labs. That’s thrilling. That South Philly example from above also came with a push to get residential units above and near main corridor storefronts to create ‘eyes on the street,’ to cite legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs. Spring Street should vie for that too. By taking ownership of a few of those empty storefronts, an economic development group could focus on updating the rental housing stock for a young population that is putting off buying homes like no generation before them.
  • First Fridays — Newton has, I believe, tried this age-old concept of rallying an entire corridor to stay out late for night-time walking about to activate a space. Do it again, but do it better. After you’ve filled your commercial space not just with paying tenants but with good tenants — cool, young businesses, art galleries and the like — start simply: pick 3-5 spring/summer months, leverage all the aforementioned partners and drive presence. Shut down Spring Street between Main and Madison to make it a pedestrian mall. Don’t spend any money on programming in the beginning, start small. Let the restaurants have tables outside, encourage others to open their doors.
  • Young Professionals Network — The Newton Rotary ought to focus on building the network of future young leaders who are thinking about these issues. To retain talent, there needs to be a belief that like-minded, professional young people are choosing to remain in Sussex County. That can happen with leaders bringing others together.
  • Show the relevance to Senior Citizens — Elderly residents vote, so let’s not forget that developing communities on a smaller-scale is good for seniors, who also drive less and can benefit from safer, walkable neighborhoods.

These are just some early ideas. I’m sure others have thought or tried them but it ought to convey the point that small towns have an opportunity to thrive again, by using their dense walkable roots and historical character to attract a new generation that is increasingly seeking urban experiences.

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