By JOHN T. WARD
Through his Monmouth Street store, the Cheese Cave, Steve Catania has been doing business in Red Bank for seven years. And for much of that time, he’s been involved in efforts to advance the interests of downtown retailers like himself.
But if you ask them, most probably couldn’t tell you what Red Bank RiverCenter‘s job really is, says Catania. And that’s a problem, given that it’s supposed to be their advocate.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t really understand the vision and mission of RiverCenter,” said Catania, who’s now in his second year on the RiverCenter board of trustees, and his first as its chairman. “I think that’s because RiverCenter has been operating without a lot of input from and communication with the business community.”
Even some of RiverCenter’s 30 board members, he said, might not be able to say what RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone and his team have been up to in terms of marketing the downtown and business recruitment. Meantime, threats loom in the form of the repurposed Bell Labs in Holmdel; Fort Monmouth, which is in line for massive redevelopment; Monmouth Mall, Asbury Park, Long Branch and more, all of which are siphoning off businesses and customers from Broad Street.
They’re among the reasons that the Red Bank Business Alliance came into being two years ago, said Catania: its members saw themselves, individually and collectively, as untapped resources on protecting and growing the downtown. He should know: he was the RBBA’s founding president, and continues to sit on its board.
That sense of frustration is still evident. Catania said that in recent years, RiverCenter “spent so much time focused on parking that, as an organization, we were missing some of the other things we need to focus on.” More broadly, he feels, the organization had become “stagnant.”
So Catania’s move to the head of the table might seem a kind of storming of the castle, one dominated for years by the interests of commercial landlords rather than merchants and restaurants, in the view of some critics. But “I’ve never been of that mindset,” Catania said.
Some RBBA members saw that group’s formation “as an opportunity to go to war, so to speak, with RiverCenter,” he said. “But I don’t think that benefits anybody.”
Instead, Catania has steered RiverCenter in recent months to undertake a project that begins in earnest next week: the development of a new mission statement and strategic plan for the organization.
RiverCenter was formed in 1991 under state law as the manager of Red Bank’s “special improvement district” — the core downtown at the time. (The district was later expanded to include properties as far west as Bridge Avenue.) Funded by a surtax on commercial properties, it has a wide-ranging charge that includes helping to fill retail vacancies and drawing visitors to town.
Scavone, in a separate interview, told redbankgreen he welcomes Catania’s initiative. The organization has had at least two strategic plans in its history, but a new one is “overdue,” he said.
When RiverCenter was formed, Scavone said, it had a “very immediate goal,” which was to stave off economic ruin, at a time when every other storefront was vacant and the town was derisively referred to as “Dead Bank.”
“It was highly successful. They got there. Red Bank is flourishing,” he said. “Now, with the new challenges that we face, we just need direction.”
The mission statement and plan, which must be approved by the full board, will give RiverCenter’s small staff a refreshed set of priorities. It will codify “what we’re going to say ‘yes’ to in terms of programs, but will also help us say ‘no, that doesn’t fit into our strategic plan'” when individual members or others ask for or demand specific projects, Scavone said.
From Catania’s point of view, the process also “invites people back to the table to have meaningful discussions about the bigger picture,” while offering residents of the town both visibility into the organization and an opportunity to influence its direction.
The process commences Monday night, June 18, at the Oyster Point Hotel, with a public-welcome session scheduled for 7 p.m.
The event will be led by Bill Fontana, executive director of Pennsylvania Downtown Center, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization that advises downtown promotion agencies. RiverCenter has hired PDC to help it find its way to the new mission, a task Scavone said he expects to wrap up by late October.
En route, in addition to five public sessions, there will be focus group sessions with business owners, government officials and others, he said.
Parking, meantime, remains RiverCenter’s most pressing concern, Catania said, “but it’s not the only one, and we have a limited ability to effectuate change.”
Here’s the schedule of future meetings in the series: