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Reaching Out
to College Customers

Michael Lavery
By Michael B. Laveryr
Mayor, Hackettstown

Almost every community in America has a characteristic or identity that it can call its own. If properly capitalized upon, that characteristic can draw shoppers and investment, generating business for the community. Some municipalities do this better than others. One thing is certain, doing it now is critically important to help reverse the recession’s negative impact on consumer spending.

We were fortunate to get a little jump on this when the Hackettstown Business Improvement District (BID) retained the JGSC Group of Merchantville in 2008 to conduct its trademarked Community Insights™ study to determine how to best revitalize our downtown business district. The study concluded that Hackettstown’s most distinctive characteristic is that it is a “college town.”

cyclone mascot in costume with people
Centenary College's Cyclone Mascot is joined by students and staff in the Hackettstown St. Patrick's Day Parade

However, you may not have known that—until now.

Centenary College has been a primary facet of the heritage and character of Hackettstown for nearly 150 years, yet it has never been fully assimilated into the community. By working together we’ve begun to meet the interests and needs of the college. At the same time, we’re improving our business district, making it better for shoppers, residents and the retailers. We have just gotten started, but we are already reaping the rewards.

JGSC’s Community Insights™ study concluded that for Hackettstown’s retail districts to become more successful, they need to conform more to the shopping needs of the college. At present, local merchants capture just 44 percent of annual student spending. Another source of customers for local businesses are the employees of Mars Snack Foods and Hackettstown Regional Medical Center. We’ve begun to focus on catering to their needs as well.

So the BID formed a new revitalization committee with a broad representation of the business community, and under the direction of the BID board and Executive Director David Rucki, we have begun a series of initiatives that are bolstering business both in the short term and long term.

The college has been an enormous untapped resource. The students and college staff have specific retail interests, for example books, clothing, dining and entertainment, which can be more thoroughly offered by Hackettstown businesses. Shopping locally is convenient for the students, and the retailers have the opportunity to generate repeat business.

Complementing both the students’ and retailers’ interests, the college has introduced a new student ID card, called “Cyclone Card,” which doubles as a debit card to be used in purchases at participating downtown merchants. Businesses participating in the college’s Cyclone Card program can market themselves with special college sales and promotions. In addition, the college provides the students with incentives to shop downtown, including a monthly drawing for an Apple iPod, with entries automatically registered for the drawing with every purchase using the card at a local business. The program already has increased sales at some local stores by as much as $1,000 per month, tapping into the $8.1 million annual spending power of the students.

see caption below
Joining together to introduce the Cyclone Card program for students and Hackettstown businesses are (L to R) Scott Hughes, Centenary College Director of IT; a Centenary student; Kenneth Hoyt, Centenary College President; Tom Schiano, Owner of Mamas Restaurant & Cafe Baci; Michael Lavery, Hackettstown Mayor; and David Rucki, Hackettstown BID Executive Director.

Equally important to sales is the opportunity the students have to gain firsthand experience by assisting the retailers with their window displays. New collaborative programs being undertaken by the BID and Centenary College are providing the school’s merchandizing and fashion design students with firsthand experience, directly applying their education in creating store window displays and aiding local businesses with professional window design.

A holiday window display contest held last December included several store windows decorated by students. The contest, organized by the BID, was judged by shoppers. Four winning windows were selected, including one created by the Centenary College student team of Stephanie Breon and Jenifer Shannon, who gained not only experience, but a $50 prize on their Cyclone Cards. Plans are now underway to enlarge the program into a yearly event.

Participating in the window design program is an invaluable practical learning experience for the kids. That program, and our internship program with local businesses, provide the opportunity for them to hone their talents and skills. Even more, it helps the students to feel connected to the town, and the town to truly become a part of the college.

Currently, the college’s internship program is placing students at a variety of local businesses in addition to retail stores, including the regional medical center, day care facilities, retirement villages, marketing firms and web site design companies, among others. The college also has an annual community service event every September, called “Community Plunge,” in which it is mandatory for freshmen and new transfer students to spend the day performing some beneficial task, such as helping at the local food bank or nursing home, or sweeping the sidewalks and picking up litter.

Becoming a “true college town” does more than generate sales, provide free talent for businesses and contribute community service time. As Hackettstown continues to cater to Centenary College’s interests and needs, the college can showcase Hackettstown as an excellent learning environment, offering a variety of amenities, attractions and leisure entertainment that can help increase student enrollment. The benefits are reciprocal.

There also is a major expansion underway at the college with the construction of a new 68,000 square foot performing arts center, scheduled to open in 2010, which will increase shows and events held in Hackettstown throughout the year, expanding the cultural offerings of the community and drawing shoppers downtown.

When completed, the facility will house a 500-seat theatre, a black-box theatre, a dance studio and a communication wing that combines Centenary’s television studio and listener-supported public radio station. It also will contain a 405-seat dining facility, a 55-seat café and classrooms, faculty offices, conference areas and a variety of student lounges and study spaces. A regional resource, the new center’s conference space will be available for meetings and events by businesses and community groups.

Revitalization efforts now being undertaken by the BID and the Hackettstown’s Revitalization Committee are progressing toward creating a comfortable environment on Main Street that will encourage shoppers to walk, browse, shop, dine, socialize and generally spend longer amounts of time when downtown. To achieve this, more college-oriented retail and more leisure-oriented pedestrian amenities will be offered, such as improved streetscapes, lighting, benches, planters, bike paths and bike racks.

Other initiatives include cooperative marketing programs, evening shopping one night per month and more community special events. A major recommendation made by JGSC’s revitalization study is to consider zoning ordinances that will allow for café-style sidewalk dining and a town square for ongoing public activities. Recruitment of new businesses will include more casual upscale dining, fast food, seafood, taverns, pubs, steakhouses and coffee shops. Retailers recruited will focus on books, clothing, footwear, electronics, arts & crafts, gifts, house wares and home goods.

see caption below
The Hackettstown BID Visual Improvement Grant (VIP) program is expediting the renewal of commercial properties in the business district, such as the retail and apartment building above.

There also are recommendations to combine redevelopment opportunities with initiatives to increase the college’s presence downtown, including the building of student housing, classroom space and other college-oriented facilities. This has launched a dialogue between the BID and property owners, encouraging them to improve their buildings and to consider their apartments for Centenary student off-campus living.  The BID has enabled these property owners to begin these improvements through our Visual Improvement Grant Program, which to date has awarded over $20,000, and we have recognized the property owners with municipal proclamations lauding their commitment to the town and their buildings along Main Street.

The character of Hackettstown always has been one of a warm and welcoming community. It will be even more so now that we are integrating the college directly into our ongoing programs and activities. We are a college town, and we’re proud of it.

For further information on Hackettstown’s business district revitalization, contact David Rucki at the BID at (908) 850-5004, or online at www.hackettstownbid.com. For information about Centenary College, visit on the web at www.centenarycollege.edu

 

 

 



This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 6, June 2009

 

 

 

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