Despite its lack of trains, New York dollars, and ample parking (although two garages seems like parking enough), Toms River has the brick and mortar of a downtown. Right now, much of Main Street is just that, brick and mortar, with no substance, culture, or identity.
I certainly don't intend for any of my musings to become reality. Nor do I assume to know how to fix the financial and bureaucratic problems that are really behind Main Street's demise.
This edition's three ideas are similar to my previous three insofar as they get to the heart of downtown's problem: a lack of an identity.
Toms River has long been a netherworld of sorts - part family town, part Mason-Dixon Line, part senior citizen haven, part gateway to seaside hedonism. However, there are many intelligent, young professionals in Toms River who, despite being so far from Manhattan, would relish a little local culture.
3. Main Street needs a place for performance
About ten years ago, I saw one of the finest performances of my young life. Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze fame gave an acoustic solo performance in Toms River. The English hit-maker wowed a packed house with his phenomenal guitar skills and distinct vocals. I've seen Springsteen, U2, and a host of other bands in the biggest stadiums and arenas in the state, yet they fail to compare to my memory of Tilbrook's concert from that night.
Sadly, I saw this wonderful show in the converted church of the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library (which, even more sadly, has now become a Dunkin Donuts). Needless to say, with a venue like that, Mr. Tilbrook hasn't returned to town, nor have any other acts of note.
I understand that gutting a building and creating a Count Basie Theatre of our own is unrealistic. The money it would take to develop such a venue isn't worth a few mid-level performances a month. Luckily there is a model that could fill the void.
On a trip to visit family in Austin, Texas, I was taken to a venue called the Alamo Draft House. An intimate theatre with a modest stage and twin-size movie screen, the Alamo features live music and stage shows on the weekends, but in between shows classic and current films as an old time movie theater. The twist is the cabaret tables between each row of seats. During shows or movies, patrons write their orders on post-its, place them in shot glasses, and enjoy a burger and beer while they watch.
This indoor drive-in model would be a novelty (seeing as how Austin and Portland, Oregon are the only other places that have such a theater) that would draw a massive date-night crowd while creating a cultural landmark for the area.
2. Reclaim the night
Manayunk outside of Philly has its "First Fridays," Asbury Park has its "First Saturdays," and Toms River has ...
To be fair, I enjoy classic cars and bouncy castles as much as the next guy (I actually enjoy neither) but my thought is that the same dozen car guys that hang out in the Boston's parking lot on those random summer nights are the only people interested in downtown's "cruisin' nights."
How many times do we need the same funnel cake truck, olde tyme soda cart guy, and lady selling dream catchers to take over Washington Street? What's more, these events (like the chili carnival and ice cream festival) benefit mostly outsiders who barnstorm in for the day, trade their goods, and leave once the bagpipers are done.
A "first" night is about the town and local businesses, one night each month when local restaurants and stores (whether they are located downtown or not) converge in a bazaar-like atmosphere downtown, setting up a satellite location amidst live music and fellowship. The prices are generally low and the party lasts well into the night. Maybe you finally try something from Taco Sacra or sign up for a discounted Cross Fit session. Maybe they become your new favorite things.
A "first" night is about experimenting with all your town has to offer, which would be a welcomed change from the carnival fare and bush-league atmosphere of current downtown events.
I intend to leave my final point purposely vague in that it applies to downtown's current establishments and any future ones it may have.
Nothing kills a downtown faster than inconsistent hours and a lack of identity.
When it was open, the Java Joint would be jumping till midnight on an open mic night and closed before your movie let out the next day. Many times, my wife and I have tried to get a drink or a bagel or a burrito or a whatever only to find a darkened storefront.
What's equally as bad as a lack of consistent hours is a lack of consistent image. Are we the nostalgia town welcoming you back to a time forgotten with our florists and shoe cobblers or are we avant garde and hip with our Chopped champion bistros and designer soap shops? Are we a young couple's night out or family's day trip?
Manasquan is a beach bum paradise. Red Bank a hipster haven. Asbury a singles bar scene.
I'm not in love with the idea of building our town's image around our famous Halloween parade with monster themed cafes and wiccan shops, but at the very least its an image.
If downtown is going to make a comeback, it isn't an arcade or a concert hall that's going to save it. The real deciders need to figure out who we are and tailor our downtown to fit that culture. And if they can't, someone else needs to become the decider, because today's culture of offices and empty stalls isn't helping anyone.
Saving downtown isn't about whether or not we can attract tourist dollars, park our cars, or procure a train line. It's about giving the people who live and work here a civic center they can be proud of and identify with.