Six Things That Could Make Main Street Great Again

Part 2 of 2

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.

1. Consistency

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.

Scott October 07, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Justin, thanks for using some of my ideas as a satire in your article. Now, if we can only figure out on how we can get "Glenn Tilbrook" back to downtown TR.
i don't get it?? October 08, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Bravo!!! Being in the downtown area, its very sad to see the takeover of attorneys offices, and the inflation of rent kill any dreams...hopefully there are more of us that feel this way, and the new businesses that come into downtown TR last longer than 3 years.
Across from Downtown John October 08, 2012 at 01:08 AM
First off, there is a lot of yonger ("New York Money") moving to the Ocean County/Toms River. Many young families in their 20s and 30s from North Jersey/Monmouth County are moving here because it is mor affordable, and many more would move here if there was a train or quick transportaion to their jobs up north. With that being said, the downtown has a ton of potential. What they need is a reason for people to say, "hey lets go to downtown toms river today." Here is what I would do: 1) Bring in more antique shops. Just like Red Bank and Pt. Pleasant (even Barnaget). This will allow people to park and walk around downtown and shop. 2) With more antique shops, you can bring in more specialty shops, because while people are looking and the antique stores, they might stop in these specialty shops. Candle and soap shop are good statrs, maybe a wine and cheese shop, nice deli even the running store that the author suggested.
Across from Downtown John October 08, 2012 at 01:09 AM
3) More restaurants with liquer licenses to give various types of dining and nightlife. Go to dowtown freehold pretty much any night of the week. People will park, have dinner and maybe go bar hopping to the varous restuarants there. Picture people coming here and just parking and having the option to go to different bars, if they are not having fun at one they can just move to the next one. Stuff like a martini bar(think clydes in New Brunswick or Metro in freehold), we ave Water Street so there is your bar and grill, a nice high-end lounge etc. Right now pretty much only have water street bar and grill, and if it sucks then have to drive to another bar. If the downtown can every do this, or give an incentive for businesses like thiis to open up, then it can be a great thing for Toms River.
i don't get it?? October 08, 2012 at 02:05 AM
Liquor licenses are not available for Toms River, and when one becomes available they are made so ridiculously expensive, anyone looking to start a small establishment cannot afford one...been here all my life, wondering why we can't keep businesses downtown, and why the township has not made more of an effort to help small businesses... Oh wait, they don't care
jaime October 08, 2012 at 11:41 AM
Bravo bravo!!! I moved back to Tr after living in many places that have a thriving Main street. I always say I would love to have some place to walk to and get a coffee or browse a clothes boutique store. I hope we can make downtown a thriving hot spot again!
chtulu2000 October 08, 2012 at 12:34 PM
2 main problems with all of these, in some cases, good ideas! 1. The Main Street area makes its money during a few hours a day...the lunch hours. The kids from the high school come down for lunch and the professionals hit Cookie Cab, Shut Up and Eat, Capone's and Water Street for food. After that, with the exception of Water Street those places have no one in them. 2. Most of the street stores are dominated by professionals...lawyers, doctors..banks..even bail bondsman...There are not enough store fronts available for new businesses. But, if we are giving suggestions on what will help make Main Street better...a New York Style Jewish Deli, a Burger Place, another bar to replace the inept bar run by Capone's...and try make the bar open on Sundays for football huh! An ice cream place with good prices to compete with Rich's.
JD October 08, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Downtown is toooo small to do anything with... Basically a block long.... Pipedream...
Kate October 08, 2012 at 01:01 PM
After just returning from a driving trip throughout a handful of small towns in Maryland (Chestertown, St. Michaels etc), my Husband and I were struck with a similar sentiment. We stumbled upon Chestertown, MD on one of their "First Fridays". The downtown area was full of people standing in the streets, enjoying adult beverages (handed out at each of the storefronts), shopping, listening to poetry readings at a local furniture shop etc. We marveled about how it gave the town a feeling of community and promoted the businesses in the small 3 blocks of the "downtown". Then we wondered why Toms River couldn't do something similar. Everyone participated; real estate agents, insurance brokers, attorney's offices. We would LOVE to see something like this in our hometown!
Minden Yo October 08, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Let's not forget how attractive the jail and court house are!
kemosabe October 08, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Stop spending $10 million a year of our budget on PENSIONS!!!! Invest it in the town and provide tax relief.
Grumpy Old Man October 08, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Downtown Toms River died when the movie theater and the churches moved out,and the sweetshop closed up.
Grumpy Old Man October 08, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Downtown Toms River "died" when the Movie Theater & the Churches moved out.
Mike L October 09, 2012 at 02:38 AM
You know, all of the above ideas are good.......why couldn't our PAID officials of the Downtown Development Group (and what have they done lately (?) other than cashing there checks) thought of something. Since there is less traffic on Main Street during the weekend, Why not reroute the traffic to Hooper Ave and open the part of Main Street that we are talking about to pedestrian traffic on Saturday and Sunday.....all day......and offer the walkers something, remember the saying...."build it and they will come"......so open more small stores, whether it be ice cream, sandwich shop, cookie store, and what ever would be proper for the walkers.......Give it a try OFICIALS OF TOMS RIVER.....give something to the people for a change!
E. Eytan October 09, 2012 at 04:00 AM
A focal point of Toms River Township and the village of Toms River should be the Toms River. It is unfortunate that half of the main waterfront intersection is occupied by a convenience store and a motel lacking in style. Land near the river could be reclaimed by the town with the dissolution of the MUA. Newburgh, NY, a thoroughly blighted area, has taken a major step forward with its waterfront development along the Hudson.
Greg October 09, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Where are you going to park downtown? In the Township lot? Are you going to want run out in the rain or the snow and pump money into the parking meters? Are you kidding me? When the Council was asked why there are meters on every street corner a resident was told that's they way it is done all over the state. The resident then stated that perhaps the council should take a ride over to Point Pleasant or Spring Lake and see that there are NO PARKING METERS there and that there are MANY STORES TO SHOP IN!!!! But, then again if Toms River got rid of the parking meters they would have to lay off employees and perhaps they are related to someone or they were given the job as a political payoff to someone's friend or family member. Come on Toms River wake up and smell the roses that there is a chance that you could turn the downtown area into a really cute quaint little area that would help bring tax rateables into the township coffers and help off set some of these outrageous taxes that are being passed onto the homeowner. There once was a time when people loved to come to the downtown area to shop!!! Perhaps there will come a time when downtown can have more than just the "Chili fest" or the "Ice Cream fest", how about the BID put sometime into planning a REAL "Streetfair" like Point Pleasant or Belmar have. Just a few little thoughts.
Greg October 09, 2012 at 12:43 PM
E.Eytan, I know that you are running for the Ward 4 Council Seat this November. Is this all you have to give the voters of that area of the township? What do you want to do with that property if it was to become available? Let me guess.. you want to make it high priced condos. Am I wrong? Please enlighten me. I am not enthralled with either of the candidates that are on the ballot for the Ward 4 seat this November. You have Al "The Yes Man" Maniforti on the Republican ticket and you E. Eytan "The Know Nothing About Candidate" on the Democratic ticket lets, see who can we vote for? I guess we can vote for Mickey Mouse he would do a better job! Here is one of the reasons why Toms River is in the shape that it is in. Neither party puts up a candidate that is any good!!!! Neither one of these candidates has EVER held a debate to tell the people of Ward 4 what they want to do to improve the township and what they want to do to better the Ward 4 area of the township. If anyone has take a ride through this area lately they would see that there is a lot of work that needs to be done here and that there are also a lot of problems that need to be addressed in this area.
Paul N. October 09, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Oh boy, did Nels tell you to say that? Sorry Eli you are a nice guy but you and I know this is not the year to be running in Ocean County. Try again next year maybe. Ward 3 is un-opposed and well anyway how many time can you run. Also did you not lose many times when you ran for I think, Senator, Freeholder, Congress? Please I know you are on the same team as Michelle Rosen but gee wilikers.
Krat Point October 09, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Greg, That is not true E. Etan has run and lost in a number of Dem elections under different hat's. For instance, I think he ran last time out for Assembly or Senator last year.
Greg October 10, 2012 at 03:24 AM
Krat Point, Sorry to inform you but, you are wrong. I just got my mail in ballot and Eli. L. Eytan in on the ballot as a Democrat for the Ward 4 Seat running against Alfonso Manforti, JR. Unless he dropped out of the race he is on the ballot. So my question still stands hey Eli what are your plans for Ward 4 should you get elected this November? We already know what to expect from Manforti and that is a guaranteed "YES" vote to whatever is up for a vote with no questions asked. And if a resident has a question you are guaranteed that you aren't going to hear from him one way or another. So, seems to me whatever way we vote the residents of Ward 4 are SCREWED!!!!! So, why should we even vote for a Ward rep? Give me a reason why I should even consider voting for you Eli?????????


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