Mingling and Brainstorming: Are you up to the Challenge of Transforming Caldwell into a Go-to Destination?

Business owners asked questions and spoke about concerns.
The scene at Flowerland
Caldwell resident Alan Schindler with Caldwell Mayor Ann Dassing
Diane Lilli

Some small towns can boast that the stores bookending their Main street are household names, like Gap or JCrew or Ann Taylor.
Other towns brag about the busy pedestrian traffic.
Seaside towns tout their seafood and views; city-styled towns sing about their culture and diversity.
Caldwell is a home-town of a different sort, yet somehow possesses the same mix that all towns offer: great food, fun shopping, and entertainment.
And, this small borough also has something many other busy towns do not have: safe streets.

Still, business owners in Caldwell are concerned. It is not busy enough.
Where are all the people? How does Caldwell attract more shoppers and diners and visitors? Is it due to parking? Every town has parking meters and lots so it probably isn't the parking keeping people away. I am in Montclair every single day, and it is hard to find a parking spot on most days. None of the parking is free.

Could it be that there needs to be more events or publicity in town? Can Caldwell attract a well-known major retailer? How about if the stores stay open later? And, maybe we need some new stores to add in to the mix.

Last night, at a casual and fun Meet and Greet at Flowerland, owners of businesses mingled with Caldwell Mayor Ann Dassing, Caldwell councilmen including Peter Murray, Rich Hauser, Tom O'Donnell and John Coyle; the police chief Jim Bongiorno and some of Caldwell's finest Lieutenants, officers, Caldwell College Dr. Nancy Blattner and residents.

This was a solid beginning - but now the hard work must begin. The merchants need to organize some strong ideas, and back it up with some powerful marketing and a practical strategy.

I moved here because I can imagine this town - my home town - as a vibrant fun place to spend my time.

We need the arts. We could use some diversity. But our bones are just fabulous. Caldwell has the foundation to be "the place to be" on so many levels.

Can we make that dream to make Caldwell a go-to destination a reality? I think so. I really do.

I wonder: who is really up for the challenge?

Free food was supplied by Hog Wild, wine and punch offered up by Flowerland, pizza from Tony D's, and even live music by Caldwell's own Paul Gargiulo, who was there to entertain the crowd.

This kind of volunteerism - and donations of talent, food, music and location, are indicative of a willingness by many to make Caldwell a great place to live.

But most importantly, this gathering was an upbeat, low-key yet effective way to introduce people to one another, and perhaps help the local merchants figure out a new way to highlight the many charms of Caldwell.

Project Main Street and the Caldwell Merchant Association were both represented, and lively discussions as to how to attract more business to the downtown were on everyone's agenda.

One thing people can do, advised Project Main Street's Christy Berg,is to attend the Downtown Revitalization Management Institute workshop in Lyndhurst on October 16. Berg somehow managed to talk the group into letting anyone - any one at all - from Caldwell attend for free. This will be a dynamic event, and the meetings will focus on how small towns can attract business to their downtowns, and make them more lively and vital.

Caldwell Merchant Association's head June Cowell said she wanted everyone to mingle and get to know each other - and plenty of guests took advantage of the opportunity.

The police force was in attendance, and the ongoing merchant safety program offered by the Caldwell Police, along with the upcoming Auxiliary police once they are trained, are all high-value features that protect the town. The open conversation always offered by the council - of anyone reaches out to speak to any one of them - was also evident.

A long time Caldwell barber that has been in town for 50 years told the crowd that in the old days, the streets were crowded and he had a hard time finding an empty shop to rent.

As he looks around now, he said, he can look all the way up Bloomfield Avenue and see not one person. But customers and a busy town won't just happen. It will take every ounce of creativity and planning - with a strong leader and dedicated back-up committee - to beat the competition of every other town that wants their own Main Street to be vibrant.

Last night's Meet and Greet was a great beginning - and an appetizer to the full course that must follow in order for Caldwell to become a thriving, successful town.

How does Caldwell become a go-to destination? If I had building Caldwell's visibility on my mind every day - I would be very busy creating events, marketing all kinds of wonderful restaurants, services, some kind of babysitting program (not yet created), Restaurant Week, a monthly television show featuring every business in some fun and easy-going style (like my show in Montclair), attract artists and showcase the arts in windows on Main Street, and also go after every solid, major upscale retailer in existence to tempt them to join the borough.

With the conversation started, perhaps the ground work can lead to something bigger - and more substantial for the borough. But a Meet and Greet is only the very hint of way to do this - nothing can happen without detailed planning, a mightly committment by many merhants, and a good dose of luck.

Blaming town hall for a lack of shoppers is not realistic, as one vendor did last night when speaking to me. It will take team work, creative fun ideas and a giant dose of publicity married to marketing to some hot retailers to help this safe, charming and delightful town get the word out - and fill those sidewalks up once again with happy shoppers.

The art of commerce is exactly that: an art. Want a busy downtown? It is possible. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we all have the power to make it happen, to make our own hometown the place that we can click our heels about and say "There's no place like home".