Imagine if you will… it’s a beautiful Spring day, the breeze is blowing, the trees and flowers are starting to bloom, and even with a mask you can tell there’s a sweet smell in the air. You go downtown, grab an iced coffee from your favorite local spot, and complement it with a fresh baked cookie from the bakery around the corner. You consume both while enjoying some sunshine on a park bench. Now caffeinated, you decide to do some browsing.
First the antique store, then the comic book shop a couple doors down. You cross the street to scope out the thrift store having a rummage sale, and the independent bookstore that opened recently. It’s such a beautiful day out, you start to think about dinner. Maybe you’ll grab a table at one of the restaurants with outdoor seating, or grab a beer at one of the microbreweries, but then ice cream catches your attention! Made in house, including flavors made with coffee roasted at the spot where you started your day. This sounds like an experience you’d have to go to a major city for, but in actuality, I only had to drive 15 minutes to Pitman.
Pitman is similar in geographical size and population size to Woodbury, and the median household income is pretty close. Our downtowns are both old, and made up of historic buildings, but if you drive through the downtowns of each city, some differences are apparent. Pitman’s care for their downtown is obvious. Building restoration projects sprinkle the couple blocks of storefronts. Long-gone businesses (like a 100+ year old bank) are fitted to home budding new businesses like a brew pub. The Broadway Theater, which will soon celebrate it’s 100th year, has seen its ups and downs, but it still stands. A venue that once played host to Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and dozens of other legendary acts now advertises for upcoming children’s programming. Woodbury’s Rialto Theater began as an opera house, but was converted to a movie house that showed the Hollywood greats until it closed in 1955. For the next half century it housed a clothing store, until it was marked for demolition in 2001. In 2004, it was saved by a $1.5 million grant, creating housing for seniors in the upper floors, and store fronts on the ground level. An array of businesses have come and gone from the location, but it currently houses a barbershop, a cellphone store, and a thrift store, its history as a legendary theater, long buried.
Pitman’s downtown, or uptown as they call it, markets itself with the phrase “Shop. Eat. Stroll. Stay.” and it provides the means to do all of those things. Its website also represents their Revitalization Corporation that works to acquire grant money to maintain and attract businesses to their uptown district.
Woodbury could learn a thing or two (or more) from all of these aspects, starting with a redevelopment plan that seeks out new business AND helps make sure the existing businesses in town stay here. Discussions with landlords to make sure that vacant storefronts are suitable to fit the needs of new businesses. It’s time something is done about broken windows, rotting wood storefronts, and temporary banner signs for businesses that no longer exist, or never existed in the first place. Pitman’s shopping district possesses its own website with up to date events. Woodbury’s business directory on the city website lists 5 businesses under “Food & Drink” alone that no longer even exist. And most of those that still do are chain stores.
Did I enjoy my day out in Pitman? I most certainly did. But besides the coffee and desserts, the biggest thing I took away from the experience is that Woodbury could (and SHOULD) be able to provide the same experiences. I'm not saying that we should copy Pitman entirely, but I think that good leadership recognizes who is doing things well and asks the community "How do we make that happen that still fits the 'Woodbury' identity?" We have the parking, we have the space, we have the culture, we just need a redevelopment plan to get it done!
- Aaron Weber, Ward 1 Council Candidate