Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bayshore Business Conference: Building a Regional Economic Development Plan

This month I have had the honor of chairing and participating in the very first Bayshore Business Conference. The Conference is a focus group on economic development in the Bayshore section of Monmouth County. Both the organizers and the participants brought forth many exciting ideas for supporting business along our portion of the Jersey Shore. Topics ranged from improving synergy between local business groups and government at local, county and state levels to networking between towns to encourage regional marketing initiatives. I was encouraged and excited to share the concept of water transportation with the group as a means of linking our Bayshore towns and avoiding additional volume on Route 36. Some were very excited by the concept. I'm looking forward to working with each town on what their best next step might be toward supporting better business development in their downtown.

Highlands has been a leader in Economic Development in the Bayshore. The collaborative efforts of the Highlands business owners in cooperation with Highlands Borough government have resulted in Highlands becoming a destination for summer vacation fun, and terrific summer seasonal events. In recent years the season has extended from the early spring (Highlands' St. Patrick's Day Parade) to mid autumn (Highlands' Oktoberfest). The techniques developed by the Business Partnership in Highlands can be used in every Bayshore town. Our Borough has become an example to follow.

Highlands' downtown center is the Bay Avenue business district. Highlands also has great potential on our waterfront in the Shrewsbury Avenue area past Veteran's Park and to the south. And last but not least, our northern waterfront area presents a promising location for recreation and conference based businesses. While all business is suffering during this national economic downturn, Highlands is fortunate to have an active and vibrant business district anchored by distinctive and successful restaurants. These anchor businesses truly weather all storms keeping Highlands business district steadily active. I believe we have a firm foundation on which to build.

Increasing retail shops is a firm next step in improving the Highlands downtown business district. Highlighting our history as a clamming town and seashore vacation spot, focused retail shops could remind residents and visitors of the identity of Highlands. Inviting retailers that offer distinctive household items, arts and crafts, furniture, and jewelry will enhance the experience of the dinner patrons that visit Highlands during the evening hours. Retail shops supporting summer sports and recreation as well as cycling and skating enthusiasts might benefit from sales during the daytime hours. Our existing residents and visitors are likely to take advantage of these retail shops, and new visitors may be drawn to us knowing they can find fun for the whole family.

Another good next step might be encouraging service businesses such as accounting firms, law offices, financial management firms, technology companies, medical offices, printing services, and the like. These businesses will not only provide jobs for Highlands residents, but will provide support for retail shops to support their needs for day to day operation, and support for restaurants through meetings and conferences. The advertising produced by these service businesses will certainly benefit Highlands as it often reaches people beyond our borders, continuously placing Highlands on the map in the minds of their patrons. In this way the advertising of one business effectively advertises the whole town and other consumer opportunities available here.

Lastly, novelty combinations of recreation with technology could draw recreational visitors to our area. In this day of instant communication with cellular phones, text messaging, and multimedia messages wifi internet access in our downtown business district might provide a progressive marketing opportunity for Highlands. The possibility of working or communicating with friends and family from a public park, while on a boat in the river, or while sitting outside your favorite restaurant may be enticing to visitors. Likewise, our own Highlands residents can get out of the house into the open air while keeping up with work outside the office, and staying in touch with family and friends. The 2008 wifi proposal has a $125,000 price tag. Grant money may be available to defray some of this cost. I hope the Borough Council and the Planning Board will consider this as a short term stimulus for growth in the district.

The Highlands Borough Planning Board is reexamining the Master Plan for Highlands Borough in the hope of stimulating economic growth in our downtown business district and along our waterfront. This project is a collaborative effort taking into account a balance between the needs of residents and business owners in Highlands. It is one of the most important projects ongoing in Highlands this year. I have enjoyed working with this group of energetic, forward thinking individuals. We all want Highlands to be vibrant and healthy, while maintaining our quiet, peaceful seashore setting. I'm sure we can develop a Master Plan that works toward that goal.

The Bayshore Business Conference provides Highlands a forum in which to showcase our successes and discover new ideas through networking with other Bayshore towns. By organizing our efforts regionally, we can all advertise each other providing a host of alternatives for seasonal summer fun and year round business opportunity. I am honored to chair the Conference for the benefit of Highlands and the other participating towns in the region. The Bayshore is a valuable asset to Monmouth County and the State of New Jersey. Working together I am certain we will reach our full potential.