Our view: Monroe revitalization plan needs better focus and input.
Tuesday’s meeting of the Monroe Village Board gave a glimpse into the plans Mayor James Purcell may have for the business district, but the lack of detail, consensus, and direction in the Monroe revitalization plan leave us with grave concerns about whether his is the correct direction and leadership.
We give Purcell credit for embarking on an ambitious undertaking: addressing the long-ignored and beleaguered Lake Street business district. It’s not an easy undertaking in a town that also plays host to such big-box retailers as Walmart, Target, BJ’s Wholesale and Home Depot. Changing habits and bringing people to local businesses means providing an inviting shopping experience.
A drive down Lake Street reveals what Monroe faces now: dilapidated store fronts, vacancies, and more service businesses (dance studios, martial arts, hairdressers, pizza shops) and fewer local and specialty retailers that are the hallmark of other “Main Streets”. In some ways, that’s expected. Monroe is less than 4 miles from the venerable Woodbury Common Premium Outlets (150+ shops of off-price retail) and the aforementioned value-retailers. It’s roughly a 20-minute drive from Warwick, a location the New York Times has cited as a go-to destination outside a major metropolis, and one with a much stronger alliance of retailers. And Lake Street is not the main-route through Monroe. That title goes to Route 17M, the road on which most of Monroe’s businesses are already located in various pockets.
Monroe Revitalization, therefore, isn’t an easy task when your competition is based in strip malls along a roughly 3 mile stretch of highway from Harriman to the border with Blooming Grove. Other towns face similar issues, Blooming Grove sharing the same lack of a central hub as Monroe. We mention this since much of Blooming Grove’s businesses exist along NY State Route 208 without a central hub or gathering point. Monroe, by contrast and original design, has this feature from its history as a stop on the Erie Railroad. Where rail was the focal point of transit 60 or more years ago, the car has replaced it. With limited mass-transit options, and Lake Street a 30-40 minute walk from the furthest reaches of the village, the necessity and purpose of a shopping district in a community has changed.
Those are considerations we believe haven’t been addressed in the current revitalization plan.
And the current Monroe revitalization plan itself is flawed. It is less a strategy on how to “fix” Monroe than one of ‘changing the street scape’. That needs to change.
A few considerations not undertaken:
- The demographics of Monroe. We question what those demographics support. The current population appears satisfied to support more pizza shops per capita than any neighborhood outside of Brooklyn. Would they support specialty retailers? Services? What would draw those people to a business district other than their choice of toppings?
- What do residents want from a business district? For them, is it a central hub of activity? Is it a mixed use neighborhood with ground-level retail and above ground housing? Is it a different draw altogether?
- What can people not purchase in Monroe that would draw them outside the community? Would that change if those services were local and central, within a 5 minute drive?
Some other key thoughts:
- When asked about the level of support that capital improvements had from the building owners in the business district, the response appeared to suggest very little. Without their direct involvement, any plan runs a high risk of failure and likely accomplishes very little in helping businesses gain a successful foothold our town.
- Rents. The cost per square foot on Lake Street is sufficiently high enough to detract from new businesses entering and being successful. The landlords need to reconsider their approach on rents for a revitalization to work, and for vibrancy to the area. If successful, this creates the type of foot traffic that puts a business district on the map. When a rent in a dilapidated building off the main drag does generate enough traffic, the business will not be successful or will seek out a better rental opportunity, Working with businesses on stabilizing rents to a level that will generate full occupancy and maintain demand will help everyone.
- Code Enforcement. Our business district looks run down and dilapidated because we’ve allowed that decay to happen. By ensuring the uniform codes are enforced, landlords will need to bring their properties up to code and make the necessary capital improvements. Or sell if the costs of maintaining code are beyond the investment the landlord wishes to make. We already know that code enforcement in the village is cited as “weak”. Better enforcement could be a source of new ownership and renewed interest.
- Improved access to incentives/creating a business-friendly community. This needs to include a strong business association/Chamber of Commerce.
- Vision of the target state. Other communities have a specific draw or lure as a “destination location”. Monroe lacks this, and the annual “Cheese Festival” — the one that doesn’t include cheese — has not evolved beyond a street fair. What will Monroe offer to entice both residents and visitors?
As was pointed out in the SWOT analysis of the current Monroe revitalization plan, there are many deficient areas. Weaknesses and opportunities go beyond the aesthetics of sidewalk connectivity and speak to only part of what the village lacks.
The village needs to begin with a comprehensive plan that focuses on code enforcement and improvement. We agree that infrastructure needs to be upgraded as we have the budget available to accommodate the work based on criticality.
We need to create the right business climate to entice business. Steps that have included the removal of parking meters have helped, but more needs to be done, and that falls squarely on the owners and landlords of the business district. Code enforcement that improves the existing building stock will entice the right business mix to Lake Street, and our Chamber of Commerce should begin seeking opportunities to fill those gaps.
The concept of a business district needs to expand beyond the horizon of Lake Street. While a central business district near the ponds is an ideal, we need to focus on creating an environment to all Monroe village businesses regardless of whether they’re on Millpond Parkway or Route 17M. Each has their role, and we cannot develop only one plan at the expense of the existing business owners that call Monroe home.
We recommend that the village embark on a plan of smaller, iterative changes that can be supported by the existing tax base without pricing residents out-of-town, and abandon the notion of a Monroe revitalization street-scape plan that disguises spending for infrastructure and lacks strong business support.
Responsible replies welcomed.