Saturday, February 21, 2009

Boro mayor, merchants discuss economic stress

PRINCETON: Boro mayor, merchants discuss economic stress
By Lauren Otis, Staff Writer
Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 5:11 PM EST
To survive in the ongoing poor economy, Princeton borough merchants and the borough administration need to work together, Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman told a gathering of the Borough Merchants for Princeton on Tuesday.

At the meeting, several merchants described a holiday season that was anything but rosy, although some said the impact on their operations was tempered by the continuing popularity of Princeton as a tourism and shopping destination.

”These are tough economic times for everyone,” Mayor Trotman said. “I do think that we are in this together. We are going to have to work together, the borough is ready to work with you to make it work for you,” she said.

”Most of what has happened over the past year we did not have any control over,” she told a gathering of the Borough Merchants at the Nassau Inn on Tuesday morning.

Faced with revenue shortfalls it has no control over, the borough is currently grappling with cuts and layoffs as it tackles its 2009 fiscal year budget, Mayor Trotman said. “We are going to have to make some very very difficult decisions, some difficult choices,” she said.

Mayor Trotman said Princeton Borough was attempting to aggressively position itself to benefit from the $787 billion federal stimulus plan that President Barack Obama signed later Tuesday.
”You should know that Princeton Borough has been aggressively following this, we are in touch with our county, state and federal representatives because we do have ‘shovel ready’ projects and we hope to get in on the receiving end of those funds,” she said.

Following Mayor Trotman’s address, Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi asked those in attendance “how you as merchants made out during the holiday season?”

Mark Censits, owner of the CoolVines retail wine store located on Nassau Street, said consumers were “trading down” during the holidays, purchasing less expensive wines at his store, but “the activity was high.”
”I actually feel like the town was very much alive and spunky during the holiday season,” Mr. Censits said.

”I would say my business was down 20 percent,” said Doris Figueroa, owner of The Place To Bead on Witherspoon Street. “I’m a luxury so it was difficult, I’m muddling through.”

Ms. Figueroa said her neighboring merchants were in a similar circumstances over the holidays too. “We all felt it,” she said, adding “even the restaurants in the area, and we do talk amongst ourselves, everybody felt the pinch this year.”

Ms. Figueroa said being in Princeton did mitigate her circumstances. “If the truth be told, if my store was anyplace else I think I’d be closing the doors,” she said.

”It was a challenge and it continues to be a challenge,” said David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management. He said business among Palmer Square tenants was down 7 percent in 2008. For the period between October and December last year, “it was more significant than 7 percent,” Mr. Newton said.

Princeton has historically been resilient in economic downturns, Mr. Newton said, but several factors, including the fact that Merrill Lynch, once one of the area’s leading employers, “ceases to exist for the most part” resulted in the local economy being less insulated than in the past. Princeton “was just totally caught unawares,” by the meltdown in the financial sector, he said.
There were bright spots among Palmer Square tenants, Mr. Newton said. He cited yoga apparel retailer lululemon athletica, which opened a store on Nassau Street late last year, as doing well since coming to Princeton.

Mimi Omiecinski, who founded Princeton Bike Tours last summer, said she was seeing a continuing strong demand for her tours, particularly among corporate consumers.

Several attendees to the Borough Merchants meeting voiced the view that the economic situation in Princeton would get worse before it got better.
”I think the vacancy (rate) at the moment is in its early days, and I thing the vacancy (rate) will get worse before it gets better,” said Mr. Newton.

”If things keep going down another 20 percent this town needs to pull together,” said Sheldon Sturges, managing director of non-profit organization Princeton Future. Mr. Sturges said economists including Nobel laureate and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman are predicting “it’s really going to get a whole lot worse.”

Kristin Appelget, director of community and regional affairs at Princeton University, and Peter Crowley, president of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, both said they were willing to entertain creative ways to benefit downtown merchants.

Ms. Appleget said she was open to brainstorming with merchants on creative ways to encourage the university’s 5,400 employees to “cross the street” and patronize local businesses more. “Anyone who would like to get a cup of coffee let’s sit down and talk,” she said.

”I’m an optimist and feel if one door closes another one opens,” said Mr. Crowley. He said the PRCC was working to bring talent and resources to bear on the current economic straits of many of its members, that it was seeking to “do some things that help people think outside the box, do some partnerships.”