A Facebook note by Chris Runion, published August 18, 2018 – www.facebook.com/notes/a-better-fit-for-flemington-driver-runion-giles-mccormick/the-blame-game-a-whos-who-not-a-whats-what/453718555131755/
The future of the Union Hotel has been the talk of the town for years and will undoubtedly continue on through November. Mayor Phil Griener, Councilwoman Brooke Warden, and Councilman Mark Hain have successfully made this single building the problem that is responsible for all other problems in this town: a downtrodden Main Street, empty store fronts, reduced tourism, and higher taxes. I’m confident that if you were really determined you could connect it to each and every pothole in town. But, is the Union Hotel really the cause of problems in Flemington or is it an effect? In what follows, I argue the latter.
Assigning blame to the Union Hotel for all of the town’s ills is an effective, albeit unfair political strategy that mirrors national politics. Effective because it shifts responsibility from those in power and responsible for the current state of our town onto a weak, dilapidated structure that until recently had no voice of its own. The reality is that while the status of the Union hotel is a problem on Main Street, it is as much an effect of a local government that allowed it, as well as, the rest of the town to decline. Decline is a strong word but we have to acknowledge the reality of the situation if we want any hope to get ourselves out of it. And, while I’m acknowledging things we oftentimes do not like to hear, I can’t help but point out a bit of irony in that while the town has adopted the slogan ‘LOVE’ Flemington and a borough website entitled ‘historicflemington’ it is at the same time moving forward to demolish the very history that has defined the town and continues to do so today.
While making the Union Hotel responsible for all of the towns dilemmas is a useful political strategy, it is also a useful development strategy. If residents believe that the Union Hotel is the cause of our problems, if we can assign blame to it, then we’re more willing to see it go, along with the rest of Flemington’s problems. But, buildings are not morally culpable any more than they are politically accountable for our state of affairs. What we see in the Union Hotel, the Agway site, the Cut Glass site, in addition to other sites around town are theeffects of an absence of code enforcement, poor policy and decision making, and a lack of vision.The blame rests squarely with those members of council who have allowed and in some ways enabled the present state of affairs to persist. The question that residents should be asking is not what to blame but who to blame?
So what are the causes of problems in Flemington if the hotel is an effect?The 2010 Municipal Self-Assessment Report acknowledges that the quality of life in our residential neighborhoods is a key indicator of success for any revitalization effort. At present, Flemington lacks basic community amenities characteristic of small town living: a playground, dog park, community center, and outdoor recreational space. In fact, Flemington has more land devoted to the dead than to the living, i.e. we have more cemetery space than recreational space according to figures released in the 2010 self-assessment report. It should be noted as well that the planned Courthouse Square redevelopment project will bring none of the opportunities mentioned above to borough residents.
Council has spent too much focus on how to bring people into Flemington rather than focusing on the approximately 4,600 people already in Flemington. These are the people we should be looking to bring out to Main Street because we’re already here. In addition, we have to acknowledge the fact that Flemington is surrounded by Lowes, ShopRite, WalMart, fast food chains, and various other goods and services. Raritan residents have little need to go into Flemington and Borough residents have every need to go out of Flemington. We need to focus on making our town more financially viable by making it more self-sufficient.
Self-sufficiency and walkability go hand-in-hand. The greatest asset of a small town is its walkability to needed goods, services, and recreational opportunities. Consider why someone would move into the Borough when they can get more land, a larger house, lower taxes, and less neighbors in nearby Raritan. We as a Borough have to facilitate goods, services, and recreational opportunities throughout town that give people reason to live here and raise a family. If residents’ lives improve business life will improve.
Other causes have been known for almost a decade but have yet to be effectively addressed. Zoning that had once enabled the survival of Main Street during a time of rapid suburban expansion by allowing office space along the first story has today led to Main Street’s present inability to thrive. Office space simply does not generate the foot traffic needed to sustain a vibrant Main Street especially during evening hours and weekends. We need to reevaluate zoning so as to facilitate the kind of food, retail, and entertainment establishments that can attract the general resident population to the downtown area.
In addition to losing the first story of Main Street to offices we have lost vast sections of our town to tax-exempt county facilities that offer few direct benefits to residents. While recognizing that county employees do support local businesses during lunch hours, imagine the possibilities of what could be if these spaces could be repurposed to the benefit of the municipality rather than to the benefit of the county. I would be interested to see a study of the lost revenue or lost value to the community if instead of having a courthouse, jail and other county offices on Main Street we had a performing arts and entertainment center, movie theater, artisan village, and a community center offering services to residents in our downtown area.
These problems are not new nor is my pointing them out to the community. The Municipal Self-Assessment Report of 2010 mentions each of these issues and the 2015 Master Plan addresses possible solutions. But I ask myself and I ask you the following questions: If we haven’t solved the borough’s problems with approximately 4,600 residents in town will we really solve them with another 400 or so? Are 100 foot buildings on Main Street going to improve my quality of life on Broad Street? Are these mega structures and the loss of our historic buildings the answer to our problems? Not according to the borough’s own 2010 self-assessment which is a stunning critique of our present redevelopment effort:
Many other traditional downtowns have seen their authentic character marred or lost in past efforts to “modernize” over the years, while the latest “New Urbanist” places continue to model the appearance of traditional downtowns, without the heart and soul of an authentic place…The Borough seeks to make the Union Hotel one of the cornerstones of its revitalization. (2010 Municipal Self-Assessment Report)
We as a town have lost our vision, forgotten our plans, and misplaced our identity. As a millennial in town, I empathize with the desperation some residents convey to me that “something has to be done.” But history shows us that acting out of desperation often leads to regrettable results in the future. I am not opposed to development, but at the same time, I do not want to see the neglect of our historic district be used as justification for modern urban development complexes. In my opinion, the key to revitalization is making our small town better not making our small town bigger.
In closing, I do not blame our elected officials for the state of affairs in Flemington. Quite honestly, I’m tired of the blame game. But, I do think we should hold our elected officials accountable. In November, you have a choice, throw away our history or throw out our politicians. Only one of them is responsible for Flemington’s present state of affairs.
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