I grew up in the Mapletree neighborhood - across from High School North - where, at the time, the coolest thing in walking distance was the Route 166 7-11. In high school, we'd pile into cars and leave the North parking lot for McDonalds, Wendys, or Dunkin Donuts.
Secretly, I always envied the kids from High School South kids who were in walking distance to all Main Street and Washington Street had to offer. For them, a weekend stroll was akin to wandering through Hill Valley from the Back to the Future movies, whereas I was surrounded by highways and endless rows of split-level houses.
Perhaps that's why when my wife and I were looking to buy a house in Toms River we barely looked in Silverton or the North Dover sections of town and found our dream home in a quiet cul-de-sac off Washington Street.
Each day, we jog past the country club, the waterfront, and through downtown. And while the library and courthouse still hold that "Hill Valley" feel, my heart grows sad as I run under the canopied sidewalks of Main Street.
The western side is still populated by banks and attorneys, but the eastern half has become dominated by vacant windows and "for lease" signs.
How did this happen? I'm sure there's some legitimate economic or partisan political reason why Main Street is failing. After all, we're constantly told that "main street" (lower case) is failing due to our national economic crisis.
Then again, I refuse to believe that we can't do something to save one of the few actual main streets in the suburban sprawl of our state. Face it, Brick, Manchester, Bayville and other towns would kill to have a true downtown amongst their mini-malls and jug-handles, and Middletown has tried for years to pass a vote to build one.
We need to take advantage of what we've got and make Main Street more Red Bank and Manasquan and less dead space. So here are the first three of six things that could be done to save Main Street:
6. Main Street needs a "Yestercades."
Have any of you been to this place in Red Bank or the similar pinball joint in Asbury Park? The new arcade model is this: pay a small fee per hour and tear up as many classic arcade and pinball games as you can without worrying about losing lives or quarters. The nostalgia factor of playing Mortal Kombat again is awesome, but what's better is the insurgence of youth it would bring to the downtown area. Where would they put it? How about the corner locale where the Java Joint once was (then wasn't), then was again (now isn't). Admit it, the downtown coffee house experiment has failed. A new epsiode of "Friends" hasn't been on television in a decade. It's time to use those big, beautiful corner windows to show off Ms. Pacman and Burger Time. I have a feeling Yestercades will make good money here and the influx of families and teens will help Washington Street's pizzeria and The Cookie Cab.
5. Cater to Runners
I'm extremely biased in this one, since I am an avid runner. However, there are hundreds of avid runners in the Toms River area as evidenced by the size of the Ocean Running Club and the turnout for the various 5k races held in town throughout the year. The problem is, as a runner, I have to travel to Sea Girt, Shrewsbury, or Freehold for a specialty running store that carries serious running shoes and gear. In addition to the scores of runners that would spend primo dollars there, this running specialty store would do well to establish a relationship with local coaches. My wife coaches track at a high school in Monmouth County. Each season, her team attends a "spike night" at the Shrewsbury running shop. For the cost of some pizzas, soda, and a student discount, the owners of that shop sell thousands of dollars in shoes and racing spikes in one night. Toms River has four high schools (not to mention middle schools and high schools from surrounding towns) that would certainly jump at the chance to give their support to a local business.
4. Join the Fro-Yo Revolution
Self-serve frozen yogurt is to modern shopping plazas what "Curves" was ten years ago: ubiquitous. I know of a half-dozen of these joints in Monmouth County alone. And what better way to service all of those hungry video-gamers and high school track stars that are flocking to Main Street than a modest storefront where you can top your frozen yogurt with any and everything imaginable and pay by the ounce? Yes, Rich's has a vice-like grip on the hearts of residents, but this town is big enough for two dessert giants. The fringe benefit of a Fro-yo place on Main Street: increased foot traffic. Imagine taking your best girl for a crumbled-Snickers-topped yogurt and then walking the strip as you eat. You pass Harold's and decide to buy a pair of old man church shoes or you guys get matching tattoos on a whim. The point is, people walking around eating yogurt are more likely to visit other stores ... if only we could fill the street up with some of those "other" stores now.
Join me next weekend as I tell you my top three ideas to revitalize Main Street. And, if anyone takes my advice and brings one of these businesses to the downtown, a 10% finders fee would be appreciated ... or free yogurt for life.