'We deserve this': Metuchen is named Great American Main Street Award semifinalist

Six years ago, Isaac Kremer moved nearly 700 miles to be the first executive director of the then-newly-formed Metuchen Downtown Alliance.

On Friday, he clocked out for the last time before heading to Princeton Monday, where he started a new position as executive director of the Princeton Business Partnership.

But just days prior, his legacy was cemented: Metuchen was named as one of the eight semifinalists for the 2023 Great American Main Street Award.

“This is the highest honor bestowed on a downtown,” said Kremer. “If we get the award, that’s just the cherry on top. That’s the confirmation that we took the lessons that others provided and we did what needed to be done in our place during our time to make things better.”

Each year, Main Street America recognizes exceptional Main Street communities whose successes serve as a model for comprehensive, preservation-based commercial district revitalization.

All accredited Main Street America programs that had not previously won were invited to submit an application for the award over the summer.

The opening of AwesomeYo's Kitchen in Metuchen.
The opening of AwesomeYo's Kitchen in Metuchen.

A national jury of community development professionals annually select the eight to 10 semifinalists based on factors including strength of the Main Street program in spurring community transformation; commitment to historic preservation; innovative programming; implementation of cross-sector partnerships; community outreach and stakeholder engagement; and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The other towns up for the award are Danville, Va.; Denison, Texas; Florence, S.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Ruston, La.; Sheridan, Wyo.; and Sykesville, Md. The three winners will be announced on March 27, 2023.

For Kremer, that date will represent 14 years of work improving main streets across the country. Nearly every year, he’s attended the conference when the award is announced with a video featuring the winning downtown. Middlesboro, Ky., the previous downtown Kremer worked for, was also once named a semifinalist.

“Often I have found myself sitting back, watching the video and wondering, ‘Is that going to be me up there one day?' ” Kremer said. “It’s always been an aspirational goal.”

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But it wasn’t exactly a far-off dream, either, with the borough’s recent development boom, local political support and Kremer’s help. Prior to 2016, Metuchen had a 20% retail vacancy rate, and locals were spending over $175 million outside of town each year, Kremer said.

Now, 70% of Metuchen customers come from outside the borough. Over 150 businesses have opened since 2016, with an 89% retention rate, including more than 50 that opened during COVID. Seventeen retail events are hosted each year, with everything from Kids Takeover to Small Business Saturday.

The Imagination Alley mural in Metuchen, started in 2018 by local artist Edward Wetzel.
The Imagination Alley mural in Metuchen, started in 2018 by local artist Edward Wetzel.

To accomplish that, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance secured 70 grants to do things like update storefront signage and lighting. “Shop Small. Shop Local” was painted on both sides of a Main Street bridge, and $70,000 was used to further beautify the borough with artwork.

Over $1 million of financial assistance went directly to local business owners, mostly during COVID. Nearly every outdoor dining table and chair was purchased by the MDA.

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Events meant to foster diversity and inclusion were added to the calendar, such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Juneteenth, Lunar New Year, a breakdancing competition and Pride on the Plaza.

“I think we deserve this award because of how far we have gone out of our way to help and support small businesses,” Kremer said. “The work we do day-in and day-out to make Metuchen a great place to do business is also what makes it a great place to live, and one that people want to visit. It’s all of those little efforts, along with some of the big stuff like the big development, that when you put it all together, we do more and we do it better than anyplace else.”

Jenna Intersimone.
Jenna Intersimone.

Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.

This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Metuchen NJ named Great American Main Street Award semifinalist