danny-murphyDanny Murphy, outside his Bridge Avenue restaurant, is leading an effort to boost the Arts & Antiques District’s profile.

For years, a cluster of businesses west of Red Bank’s downtown has felt like a neglected stepchild.

That was supposed to change with the inclusion three years ago of a portion of the West Side in the special improvement district managed by Red Bank RiverCenter, the quasi-governmental entity that collects a tax on commercial properties and uses the money to spruce up and market the covered area.

The love has been slow to materialize, though. So business owners led by longtime restaurateur and nostalgia maven Danny Murphy have banded together to do the squeaky-wheel thing. And already, they’re starting to get some grease.

The attention has come in small doses so far. RiverCenter arranged to have lights and Christmas decorations hung on the exteriors of their buildings for the season just ended. Merchants tell redbankgreen they appreciated the effort, even if the lights arrived late and some of the strands blew out without being replaced.

This week, RiverCenter launched a Facebook fan page (registration required) for the district. The page had attracted nearly 100 fans by this morning.

But more TLC is promised. Nancy Adams, RiverCenter’s executive director, says the nonprofit will also dedicate a page to the area when RiverCenter’s own website is redesigned in coming months. Both web outreaches are aimed at giving visitors fresh information about goings-on, including restaurant specials, events and the like.

But district business owners aren’t handing their fate over to RiverCenter. They’ll be using Twitter and Constant Contact, a commercial email blast service, to push the word out, Murphy says.

There have been previous efforts along these lines. One that got underway about a decade ago led to the creation of the informal district, which put up a website to tout the antiques stores, galleries and eateries clustered around the corner of Bridge Avenue and West Front Street.

The effort also produced the Santa Claus train ride from Little Silver to the Red Bank station, followed by an informal parade along Monmouth Street to the annual downtown light-up. That annual event continues.

But the larger effort fizzled. Meanwhile, in the downtown proper, merchants were getting grants for storefront improvements, brick sidewalks and new lighting were installed, and money was lavished on holiday lights and marketing.

Since the West Side was annexed by RiverCenter in early 2007, the SID has viewed the downtown proper and the West Side as a single organic entity. In fact, RiverCenter’s main marketing theme in the past year has been anchored by the motto, “Only One Red Bank,” meant to distinguish the town from other towns in the state.

But Murphy says it just ain’t so. When downtown merchants are clamoring for a parking garage, the West Siders are still clamoring for cars, he says.

“There will always be two sides of town,” says Murphy. “We tried to get rid of that idea, but it didn’t work.”

Now, the Antiques District has a well-established and highly popular stage, the Two River Theater, just across the street from the well-tenanted Galleria Red Bank shopping and office complex. A bunch of new restaurants have opened or are in the planning stages.

Murphy thinks that with the consumer economy in shambles, the time is right to try the collective approach again. He recently held a meeting that drew some 15 restaurateurs as well as Mayor Pasquale Menna.

“We said, ‘let’s generate some excitement for the West Side,”  says Murphy, who is back on the RiverCenter board of directors after a couple of years absence.

On the drawing board is some kind of major event, perhaps as early as this spring, Murphy said. He and others involved are mum on the details, but word is that Menna, a lover of classic Italian culture, is angling for some opera.

Murphy is also reaching into his own pocket, running a full-page ad in this week’s web-phobic triCity News to promote not only his own restaurant but three of his neighbors — Taste, Tommy’s Café and Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza — and a future neighbor, Pazzo’s Coal-Fired Oven Restaurant. He says he has no qualms about generating traffic for his competitors.

“You need three logs to have a good fire going,” Murphy says. “You put one log on, the thing keeps going out.”