RED BANK: DOWNTOWN ‘VISION’ GAINS FOCUS

Consultant Bill Fontana onstage at the Two River Theater Monday night. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

Downtown Red Bank is safe, clean and friendly, but it’s got problems with parking, store vacancies and its mix of operating businesses.

Those observations, while perhaps glaringly evident to many, were among the findings of a recent survey conducted for business promotion agency Red Bank RiverCenter and revealed Monday night.

The 44-question survey, which generated some 650 responses divided nearly evenly between residents and non-residents of the 07701 zip code, was conducted by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Downtown Center, a Harrisburg-based organization that advises downtown promotion agencies. It was crafted for use in an extended public discussion about RiverCenter’s future direction that began earlier this summer.

The concept-heavy, detail-light process passed the halfway mark Monday night with a session at the Two River Theater attended by several dozen business owners, area residents and a smattering of local officials.

“What we’re really trying to do is to develop a written economic future for Red Bank” that leverages its existing assets and values, Bill Fontana, Pennsylvania Downtown Center’s executive director, told the audience.

“The focus of that is not the sort of generic, ‘best place to live, shop play’ sort of thing, but a much better understanding of what we call the economic assets the community has, plus the market realities that it’s working with,” he said.

More than 90 percent of both residents and non-residents surveyed said the downtown is safe; 81 percent said it was a friendly place to spend time; and 70-plus percent said the district is clean. More than 75 percent in both groups said the downtown is “vibrant in the evening,” Fontana said.

But 63 percent of borough residents said it doesn’t have the right mix of businesses, and visitors agreed. “There are lots of places dealing with this,” Fontana said.

Is parking in the district “sufficient and easy to find”? Sixty percent of residents surveyed said no, whereas 71 percent of non-residents said no, Fontana said. He noted that the borough government is now in the midst of a parking study. In June, the council hired Walker Consultants, a New York City-based parking consultancy, to come up with recommended improvements.

Meantime, the RiverCenter vision-crafting effort points to emphasizing the borough’s reputation as a transit village; a riverfront town; a regional arts center; and a destination for shopping and dining, Fontana said.

In a public comment session, audience members argued that one or more of those assets need, or don’t need, more attention. One woman said consideration should be given to shutting down one or more downtown streets at night. Carl DeAngelis, who owns a commercial property on Monmouth Street, called the Navesink River a “unique, bejeweled centerpiece” that should be front-and-center.

“Open Broad Street to the river, period, once and for all,” he said, reading from prepared remarks.

A draft version of the RiverCenter vision plan is expected to be available when the discussion resumes on Monday, September 10, with the process scheduled to wrap up with a session on Monday, October 15, at locations to be announced.