Red Bank RiverCenter Works To Identify Vision

August 20, 2018
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Among the many suggestions to improve Red Bank’s downtown business district is to create
more pedestrian space, clean up sidewalks and encourage diversity in types of restaurants. By Jay Cook

By Chris Rotolo |

RED BANK – The vision statement that will inform the direction of Red Bank’s downtown business district hasn’t been determined yet, but the framework is in place.

At a June focus group meeting of the Red Bank RiverCenter, attendees submitted their concerns about the borough’s core downtown area. The organization also distributed online surveys discussing the community’s perception of downtown Red Bank. The results of those outreach efforts were processed, analyzed and revealed Aug. 13 at the Two River Theater, where RiverCenter held its third strategic planning meeting.

To the surprise of no one, including RiverCenter executive director James Scavone, participants identified an insufficient parking situation as the most detrimental aspect of the business district and one that could ultimately hinder future growth.

“The themes that came out of the surveys and the focus group discussion, I think somewhere in the back of our minds we all knew these were issues we needed to work on,” Scavone said in a post-meeting interview. “Parking is not a surprise to us. A call for better river access is not a surprise. It’s easy to sit up in our offices and think we have an understanding of the problems, but with the information that was submitted, those concerns were validated.”

The goal of these surveys and strategic planning meetings is to connect the downtown community with Red Bank’s surrounding neighborhoods by crafting a business plan designed to help the borough thrive for the next decade.

The surveys collected data on five different aspects of that plan, including comfort and appearance, economic characteristics, community attitude, activities and access and linkages.

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According to the results, among many appealing characteristics – including historic charm, safety and cleanliness – was the perception among surveyed business owners that the downtown district lacks identity, with no identifiable logo and a collection of businesses that may not be “the right mix” to move successfully into the future.

Bill Fontana, the executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Downtown Center – a nonprofit organization that provides revitalization help to downtown districts across the nation – has been tapped to help guide the RiverCenter initiative and presented a list of recommended activities for the organization and its member businesses to conduct.

Waterfront development was atop Fontana’s list, including the installation of a ferry service or water taxi, as well as sunset dinner cruises from Marine Park and the addition of boat docking access to waterfront dining areas.

Fontana’s list also described Red Bank’s theaters as “under-used” assets and suggested owners not only book a wider variety of concerts, performances and films to draw a more diverse audience, but increase their ticket prices by a $1 to be put toward a parking fund.

The list also called for stronger partnerships with Riverview Medical Center, which would pair certain local businesses to specific needs of the healthcare facility and make for better internal marketing within the hospital to attract employees and visitors to Red Bank’s downtown.

Fontana also suggested providing discounts for the hospital employees while developing a medical tourism plan, which could include the creation of a “street fair for practitioners.” The presentation also identified the district’s need for more health and wellness options, including fitness, spa and preventative medicine opportunities.

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“I didn’t hear anyone who objected to anything that was on the board, so that’s a good first step,” Fontana said in an interview following the meeting.

Fontana hinted at the possibility of creating sub-districts around the city. “Red Bank has a really strong arts and culture element to it, a strong dining component to it and a great riverfront component as well,” he said. “This idea of creating sub-districts with really strong identities is a strong possibility. I think there’s great opportunity for that.”

The vision statement is expected to be completed and unveiled at next month’s strategic planning meeting, but Fontana was adamant that this will only be a guiding strategy and objectives can’t be met without cooperation.

“There’s no expectation that everyone will buy into every letter of the plan, but the municipality, the RiverCenter, the Red Bank Visitors Center and other nonprofits in town have to buy into this if it’s going to work. Everybody has to be rowing this boat in the same direction and each entity has to do its part,” Fontana said.

Scavone believes a stronger relationship with the Borough of Red Bank is also integral to success.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve seen happening at the borough that point to a lot of positive change in the relationship between our organizations,” Scavone said. “So I think adhering to the strategy will be doable. The next big step will be working together on the feasibility of tackling some of the larger issues we’re facing, like parking.”

Scavone said RiverCenter will announce the date and location of its September meeting in the coming weeks.

This article was first published in the August 16-23, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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