Flemington Borough is an interesting place. Flemington is the county seat for Hunterdon County, and is famous for lots of things, among them the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, which until this year was re-enacted every year, and its outlet shopping center. Interestingly, those two things have had a direct effect on the health of its Main Street.
Across the street from the county courthouse is the Union Hotel, at the time the watering-hole for all the witnesses, hangers-on and journalists in town covering the Lindbergh trial. It’s a national historic landmark, and has served for decades as a focal point and one of the few gathering places on Main Street for eating and drinking. Sadly, it’s now closed. (More recent history surrounding attempts to redevelop it are here.) And with its closing Flemington lost a key reason people would visit Main Street.
Exacerbating that loss is the fact that for decades Flemington has had a thriving outlet center within a half-mile of downtown, and several strip malls within a mile that include such strip-mall chain stores as Kohl’s, Burlington Coat Factory, Dress Barn and Pier One. So downtown doesn’t seem like it has a chance for either shopping or eating/drinking.
But now it has a new director for its business improvement district, and he’s asking for ideas. A local attorney has posted some, and I added my list in the comments (to which apparently you can’t link directly; ahem, nj.com …).
I’d add one more idea to that list: Help local merchants create robust digital storefronts. Digital commerce will become a greater and greater part of all retail, and local merchants need to have a presence in that space if their brick-and-mortar stores are going to survive.
But many local merchants don’t have even a basic web presence, and aren’t experts in any aspect of digital media. And this is where a truly connected local media outlet could make a huge difference. If the Hunterdon County Democrat (yes, the same one I called out over poor communications during various weather crises) were really invested in the health of its local merchant community it would be offering solutions and expertise that could get these retailers online and marketed effectively. I see The Batavian in upstate New York doing this for its downtown using a platform called ShopCity, and I’m sure there are other platforms, but the best platform in the world won’t work without a strong commitment from the merchants and trustworthy guidance from whoever is helping them with implementation.
It used to be that the local newspaper was in the business of bringing customers to local businesses. The only tool available to accomplish that used to be print advertising. Now there’s a huge range of tools, such as ShopCity, requiring a lot more knowledge and expertise, but most local newspapers don’t seem particularly interested in using them. In their absence, perhaps the Flemington BID could step up.