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Disappointing Turnout For Lakwood Downtown Development Forum

The rift between the Downtown Lakewood business community and Township continues to be evident as a meeting held by officials to gather input on how to expand the business district was met with little turnout, and a heavy dose of cynicism.

Lakewood municipal building
Lakewood municipal building (TheLakewoodScoop.com)

The meeting held Monday at 6:30 pm in the main hall of the Lakewood Municipal Building. Deputy Municipal Manager and director of the Office of Economic Development Steven Reinman was joined by Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein, Deputy Mayor Albert Ackerman, as well as members of various Township Departments.

Initially, Lichtenstein spoke about initiatives the Township will be implementing in order to regulate parking as well as create more uniformity in the downtown area. Particularly addressing the issues of cars being parked all day while their drivers go to work, preventing shoppers from taking advantage of perusing the stores. Lichtenstein said they are interested in creating a system where the majority of municipal lots would be three to four hour limit, and assigning designated spots as “all day parking”.

He notes rather than assign police to patrol the lots, Lakewood will have employees of the inspection department be responsible for giving out warning and if need be, tickets, to offending vehicles. Lichtenstein is quick to point out however the goal is to get people into the habit of regarding the spots as temporary, not pad the Township’s coffers.

However the issue of assigning parking spots isn’t the issue according to those that attended. During the second part of the meeting, the panel invited residents who pre-registered to speak on ideas to improve the business district. After reading off a list of several dozen, only three members of the small (about a dozen or so) audience offered suggestions.

Lichtenstein wasn’t fazed by the low turnout, claiming with “summer vacation is wrapping up, it’s a busy time back to school season, but we did get a lot of email responses.”

Sean Ward spoke first on behalf of business owner Hershel Herskowitz and other downtown businesses, stating from a written statement the “efforts put forward by those with little if any understanding of the needs of businesses should not be validated with any more efforts on the part of merchants. Specific cases are many”.

In an interview in front of his toy store, Toys for Thought just one block away from the Municipal Hall, Herskowitz elaborated on examples of disregard for downtown business owners. Specifically, changing a popular downtown crossroad to a “one way” even as businesses owners rallied against it, canceling a farmers market, and purposely delaying construction of a parking lot for shoppers

He notes Township Officials are only interested in their own interests, and not those of the community as whole.

“I just wanted them to know that as much as I appreciate what Mayor Lichtenstein is doing right now, the honest truth is he doesn’t know any of the issues in the downtown. He doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Herskowitz accused many to turn a blind eye while “shady” businesses started popping up in the downtown and blighting the area. Citing the alarming amount of stores that provide too much of the same service (specifically noting the abundance of hair salons, grocery markets, and check cashing facilities. He says the Township should be regulating what stores are allowed to open, and screening for businesses the community needs to be vibrant. Specifically citing things like restaurants, trendy clothing stores, and anything that can have an appeal to people outside of the immediate area.

He also points out the alarming amount of stores in dilapidated condition. Many of which according to him violate health and safety codes, and some of which serve as fronts for more illegal activities. All of which Township authorities are turning a blind eye onto.

“How many episodes of Breaking Bad do you need to watch to know what’s going on?”

Herskowitz claims Lakewood Officials are gladly accepting the inflated rent many of these low quality businesses pay, many monthly costs are double or even triple of what similar facilities in Red Bank would charge. He believes for Lakewood to have a truly exciting and vibrant downtown, there needs to be a focus onto selecting the right stores, rather than accepting the easy money.

The business owner has very little faith the Township will live up to their claims of working with businesses in order to create a more orderly, clean, and well presented look for the downtown.

“They don’t know anything, they don’t know anything about retail, they don’t know anything about planning.” Adding “The only way to really redevelop a downtown is to is to create a redevelopment zone, and the way you make a redevelopment zone is you create a board, and whoever is on the board you put people with brains.

The only non-municipal employee to deliver a statement offering practical suggestions was Heath Gertner, who stated the Township needed to attract nicer restaurants that can serve as a place for visitors to eat and add real value to the downtown.

“Lakewood needs to start doing business and bringing business and bringing businesses in that benefit the entirety of the town.”

Gertner, who has fifteen years experience organizing childhood programs, commented on the perceived separation between the Jewish population and the Hispanic and Black communities.

“I probably think they need to start focusing more on minority businesses and improving those businesses in Lakewood, particularly in the black and Hispanic communities.?

Adding the real reform needs to start happening in the Township’s education system, which has suffered due to low graduation rates and substandard test scores.

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