What will the future of Springfield business look like?
On Monday, Jan. 14, Springfield business owners and residents packed the Joe Pepe Training room at the Fire Department Headquarters in hopes of getting an answer to that question.
Mark Lohbauer from the JGSC Group research firm presented the results of the extensive marketing survey undertaken by the firm at the direction of Springfield's Business Improvement District last year. The survey and other studies undertaken by JGSC created a snapshot of Springfield’s shopping districts, the spending characteristics of people in and around the Township and how township businesses related to shopping in other towns. With that data, the group drew conclusions and made recommendations about the challenges and opportunities facing Springfield business.
He outlined the large amount of traffic that comes through Springfield every day through Route 22, I-78 and Mountain Ave and said that the drivers tend to not stop or spend money in town.
“The highway access is spectacular,” Lohbauer said. Because of 78 and 22, hundreds of thousands of cars go through every day.”
Lohbauer delineated four Springfield shopping areas: Morris Ave. downtown area, Mountain Ave., Route 22 and Morris Ave beyond downtown. He said that while Morris Ave. downtown area had the greatest potential to be a walkable shopping district, but needed extensive renovation to meet that potential. Parts of Mountain Ave. could offer pedestrian-friendly browsing and shopping, but the road’s high amount of residential and municipal use made that a challenge. With its preponderance of national and regional chains and its flow into neighboring towns, Lohbauer described 22 as a “whole different animal.”
Lohbauer pegged the vacancy rate of businesses in downtown at 10 percent, a number he said was comparable to vacancy rates seen in other downtowns last spring. He said the vacancies seemed “inordinately high” because the small size of Springfield’s downtown make the vacant storefronts seem more prominent.
In light of competition from existing local businesses surrounding shopping districts, including the Short Hills mall, Lohbauer said that there are a number of retail categories that Springfield businesses are “shut out of.” Those include clothing, electronics and appliances, sporting goods, hobby and toys, auto dealerships and food and beverages.
He also identified areas his firm determined were unmet demand in the area. That included full service restaurants, grocery stores and home improvement, building supply and gardening. After an audience member noted that several Home Depot stores were already nearby, Lohbauer qualified the last recommendation by saying that the opportunity was for niche businesses that could cater to higher income residents.
Lohbauer said the survey results indicated that at present, Springfield businesses are not attracting out of town shoppers. He noted that while 1,500 of the 5,000 surveys were sent to residents of nearby municipalities, 90 percent of the returned surveys had Springfield’s zip code.
“Your local stores are selling to local residents only,” he said. “There’s heavy competition all around. There has to be a niche. That’s a problem right off the bat.”
The surveys indicated high income levels but low patterns of local shopping. Thirty one percent of respondents reported household incomes of over $100,000. Nine percent reported incomes of $250,000 or more. The data indicated that people were spending their dollars outside of town, saying they dine in other towns twice as much as in Springfield and shop outside of town three and a half times as much as they do in Springfield.
Lohbauer said the survey results indicated people were looking for change in towns. He said that 85 percent of survey responders said they wanted new shops in Springfield, 78 percent supported revitalization efforts, 73 percent wanted more browsing-oriented shopping on Morris Ave and 68 percent wanted more dining. Meanwhile, only two percent said they wanted Springfield to stay the same.
“That is a pretty powerful statement,” Lohbauer said.
Lohbauer made several recommendations based on the survey data and the observations made by his firms’ on-the-ground studies. The Morris Ave. downtown business district, he said, was best positioned for redevelopment but stressed the need for redevelopment.
“Frankly, the infrastructure doesn’t suit the businesses that you want,” Lohbauer said.
Lohbauer said that Morris and Mountain needed to be connected and singled out the public works building near the intersection as an inappropriate placement for a municipal building. He said that the downtown area needs to recruit downtown restaurants and foster a walkable, browsing shopping downtown. He said the redevelopment should include design standards for buildings, a widening of sidewalks and traffic calming measures.
Attendees expressed a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism during a question and answer section. In response to a question about who would pay for the proposed redevelopment, Lohbauer said he envisioned a mix of private and public sources. He declined to give timetable for redevelopment, but said that in Glassboro, another New Jersey municipality he worked with, the redevelopment took eight years. Another attendee asked about mixing mom and pop stores and national chains. Lohbauer said the town needs to recruit small businesses in order to create an identity that draws people from out of town.
“You want your downtown area to be distinctive,” he said. “The town has a colonial history and charm. You can create a brand around that.”
Other attendees stressed the need for traffic calming measures on Morris Ave.
“If you can’t slow traffic down, you can’t do anything,” Bob Bruce, the owner of Morris Ave. Robert Dominick Salon said.
Springfield Deputy Mayor Rich Huber attended the presentation and said he found it positive.
"I think it's a good start," he said.