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Destination Downtown: Building Vibrant Hamlets

Often some of the strongest memories people have are of their hometown; and the “Downtowns” are the center of the action, a place where friends gather to enjoy life, watch their children play, host bake sales and festivals, enjoy dining out and shopping. That is community. We are energized and excited to help strengthen the bond between residents and our commercial districts; help businesses succeed now (in the 4th quarter of 2019); and do what it takes to build vibrant hamlets and commercial districts for you to enjoy in the years to come.

WHY ARE OUR HAMLETS SO IMPORTANT?

Vibrant Hamlets (and commercial districts) are a key component to a Vibrant Community for at least the following four reasons:

(1) Impact on Resident Lifestyle: New Castle’s commercial districts are part of the experience and vibe of living in Town, and a chance for the community to come together. Our downtowns and their businesses are a vital community asset.

(2) Impact on Finances and Town-Wide Services: Our commercial districts help broaden our tax base so that, for example, more roads get paved without further burdening residential taxpayers. Many residents never go to our hamlets based on where in Town they live, but they should still benefit from vibrant hamlets.

(3) Impact on Town-wide Property Values: Downtown is the very first thing anyone looking to buy a house in Town experiences- is this the Town you have always dreamed of calling home? We did our research and we spoke to local Realtors. The feedback is consistent: buyers are making decisions based on downtown amenities when they compare, for example, New Castle to Armonk.

(4) Providing New Business and Employment Opportunities: Commercial districts provide an opportunity for local small-business owners to be founded and for part- and full-time employment for our family members. We would like our downtowns to encourage new business ideas from residents or pop-up stores as a way to keep our downtown stores fully occupied and bring foot traffic to our downtown.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Our Destination Downtown campaign incorporates several elements to make our hamlets and commercial districts work for our Town – access, zoning, promotion, special events, and an optimized business and recreational composition. On the heals of the Downtown Infrastructure project we are incredibly optimistic that our Hamlets and commercial districts can each succeed.

A. Chappaqua Hamlet in the 4th Quarter

If elected we would not take office until 2020, but there is an urgent need to help merchants and business owners in the Chappaqua hamlet recover from the downtown construction. Our downtown businesses cannot wait until 2020. We support them. We will continue to meet with numerous stakeholders—merchants, landlords, town employees and residents—to help with a plan that is actionable in the short-term and timely (the upcoming holiday period can represent about 30% of annual revenues).

We urge the current Town Board to consider action that will help increase foot traffic and revenues for our local businesses. These steps take time and planning but do not carry a significant cost. Seemingly simple details can make a big difference. Convenient, hassle-free and safe access, and promotion, are key components:

  • Parking, parking, parking! Parking is critical. As ‘punch list’ items continue in the final month(s) of the construction, the Town must take extra steps to ensure convenient spots (and Handicapped accessible spots) are open and available for patrons. Identify these important spots and ensure no construction vehicles, town government vehicles, cones, and other obstacles including snow occupy these spots during business hours. Increase signage throughout the hamlet to direct visitors to parking areas. Broadcast parking information to residents through the Town newsletter.
  • Traffic and Pedestrian Activity. Changing traffic patterns and intersection activity has deterred some people from coming downtown. As this transition continues, the Town should work with the New Castle Police Department to schedule appropriate, additional traffic control officers to be visible in the hamlet during key times to assist with traffic and pedestrians. A smooth flowing downtown residents feel comfortable in is important.
  • Open for Business. The Town should declare, in a material way, that downtown is open for business and open for residents to enjoy! The only orange residents should see is the below banner suggestion. The Town can capitalize on the curiosity of residents to experience the new downtown by sponsoring easy to organize events, like musicians on the corner or a block party. Simple mediums include a banner across the street, lamp post signs, mailers, a coupon program, and email distributions.
  • Downtown Coordination. We don’t like meetings just to have meetings, but we love communication. Merchants, building owners, the Chamber of Commerce, Town leaders and interested residents should come together to discuss opportunities for the remainder of 2019. How can downtown work better when we work together? Timing is of the essence to coordinate from now until the end of the year, more robust plans can follow in 2020.

B. Town Board to form and chair a Downtown Alliance

Team New Castle believes open and routine communication between stakeholders and a Town Board member is essential to growing the Chappaqua and Millwood business districts, the upper King Street area, and the commercial area at Chappaqua Crossing. Lauren’s retail background, as well as her relationships with the merchant community and former role as Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce, would make her an ideal Town Board chair; a new Town Board would be lucky to have someone of her caliber in that role. We believe the Alliance of stakeholders is a much more powerful (and cheaper) method of building downtown than creating a government Office of Economic Development or Economic Development position as has been proposed by our opponents. It is about how the business community works and how to exercise meaningful leadership within it.

The Downtown Alliance would include merchants, business owners, real estate agents, and landlords. They could meet or communicate routinely to address any town issues (parking, traffic, signage, etc.) and to coordinate special events. Their primary role would be to take the steps necessary to grow our hamlets and their businesses to become stronger assets for our Town and our residents.

  • Business Recruitment. The Alliance would devise a plan and identify key businesses to engage that currently do not exist in our Town (e.g. a family diner). Like the recruitment of DeCicco’s in Millwood, it takes a lot more than a For Lease sign in a store window to attract the right mix of businesses to our Town. It takes a village and leadership to make sure business owners know this is a Town they can bet on.
  • Business Friendly Hamlets. The Alliance would provide input to the Town Board, Planning Board, Architectural Review Board, Environmental Review Board, Building Department, and other departments and boards, to create a streamlined process and supportive business environment. While individual boards have roles and responsibilities, the Town Board should ensure that an efficient process is in place to enable businesses to work seamlessly with all of government. We have heard too many stories from would-be business owners and residents of cumbersome processes, not the rules themselves, driving away opportunities. We would promote simplicity, efficiency, transparency, uniformity and expediency.
  • Communications and Feedback. Alliances are different from Chambers of Commerce and they work in other communities to ensure that there are productive channels of communications between stakeholders to identify and address issues quickly. It also provides a mechanism for the business community to improve the services it delivers to residents. Our business districts can be stronger and better if both the Town and the businesses are afforded the opportunity to receive feedback from residents and patrons in a productive manner. Know and serve the customer, whether you are Town Hall or a local restaurant.

Our town has an excellent network of resources that needs connecting and engaging; and a consistent effort and long-term commitment. This is a key element of Team New Castle’s Community First platform. We can increase the velocity in which things get done when we work together, prioritize our objectives and remain committed to execution. This is precisely how other Towns have been able to build their successful downtowns and there is no reason to think we cannot achieve the same in both Millwood and Chappaqua as well as Chappaqua Crossing.

C. Preserving and Maintaining Our Investment with a Hamlets Foreman

The $14M downtown infrastructure and streetscape renovation was a significant investment for the Town and it necessitates enhanced maintenance guidelines and increased standards to preserve it. These increased standards should apply to the Millwood hamlet as well. This effort requires dedicated resources, a hamlets foreman, with responsibilities to include:

  • Addressing hardscape issues with DPW including cleaning out the significantly greater number of surface water drains on a routine basis as well as observing the functioning of the overall drainage system to prevent future flood events (including work with the Army Corp of Engineers for their biannual Kisco river drainage inspections).
  • Maintaining Visual Guidelines adopted by the Town Board: All new streetscape furniture, planters, and signage shall be maintained in the designated areas in safe operating condition.
  • Ensuring all plantings around town are well maintained and attractive. Areas include Town parking lots, the train station, and including tree pits and planters around our hamlet public spaces.
  • Performing routine walkthroughs to ensure all elements are working properly: Lamp posts, signage, table umbrellas, parking spots, etc.

D. Downtown Fund, Events, and Support for The Chappaqua-Millwood Chamber of Commerce

We do not believe fees, fines and grant programs will help attract new businesses or make our existing businesses flourish. Façade improvements and new awnings, as our opponents have proposed funding with Town budget, are nice, but in our experience those things do not generate significant enough increases in foot traffic to make a business or downtown succeed. And merchants we have spoken with in our Town and in successful downtowns elsewhere, similarly agree. There are ways, however, for the Town to help bring foot traffic into downtown. Case in point was the amazingly successful Chappaqua Book Festival on October 5th—it brought visitors from neighboring Towns and NYC to our downtown. These type of special events bring real foot traffic and we believe inspire visitors to come back or even move to our Town. Supporting and helping facilitate these events is important.

We support allocating an incremental annual budget of $25,000 that is focused on bringing additional cultural and recreational events into both hamlets, as well as communicating and marketing those events. Like the Beautification Board, it is critical to establish a Downtown Fund to help drive traffic into our Hamlets. This may include helping get a new event off the ground—like a chili-cookoff street party on Lower King street on an otherwise quiet Sunday. Or a car show in the train parking lot. Or it could include supporting existing events through additional marketing support beyond our Town or mailers offering a Shop Local discount pass.

We further believe that the Chamber of Commerce should be a close partner with the Town as part of the Downtown Alliance. Successful downtowns are closely aligned with a visible and active Chamber of Commerce. For example, the Chamber of Commerce should help businesses coordinate operations with events at the Town and schools. We believe the Town should help make the Chamber more successful by at a minimum, approving their modest funding request of $2,000 to $5,000.

E. Enhancing Community Assets

We believe our community buildings and recreational spaces are a key element of our Town as well as our commercial districts because of the foot traffic they bring. We support new recreational opportunities, including the ChapLine path from Downtown Chappaqua to Chappaqua Crossing and other multi-purpose trails in Millwood. We need to see other projects to full completion as well, such as the lighted basketball/pickleball court that has been 20+ years in the making. We also support much needed attention to our existing assets, such as the Millwood Park tennis courts and the Community Center.

The Community Center is a Town asset visited by many seniors and children. Seniors meet weekdays between 9am and 3pm to play board games, chat with friends, or celebrate birthday parties. After their time in the center they often walk around the hamlet and visit our stores. The community center is a special place but isn’t very welcoming and is generally underperforming.

The Community Center was a topic of conversation with residents at one of our Community Meetings. One resident suggested visitors have decreased because it is in bad condition. For a modest cost the Town could correct this; we’ve even had volunteers willing to help or make donations if needed. Worthwhile projects often don’t require a big check book.

Conclusion – Future Focus

The above strategy aside, the next Town Board will also be required to foster and execute on the vision for the future of our hamlets. What will Chappaqua and Millwood look like in 20 years? What will it look like when our children decide to move back here? Or will it be a place they want to move back to? The Town Board will soon decide on zoning changes that will drive what can and cannot be built in the Chappaqua hamlet. We take these decisions seriously. It will be the most important decision a new Town Board will make. We want what is ahead to be practical and workable given everything New Castle is. And we will ensure that the process is inclusive and transparent so that it reflects what you want from your Town.