By Jack Reinhard | Facebook: @JohnJackReinhard
Like other towns around America, Hackettstown, New Jersey was left with empty store fronts and other economic difficulties, as a result of the 2007 economic recession. Ten years later, the town, just shy of 10,000 residents, became debt-free.
When times were difficult, town officials met to construct a plan to pay off the $7 million debt. From 2006 to 2011 former mayor Michael B. Lavery “got the ball rolling” said current mayor Maria DiGiovanni. During that time, one of the primary focuses was updating the Main Street shopping district’s infrastructure.
By the time DiGiovanni became mayor in 2011, Hackettstown was $5 million in debt. Not long after taking office, DiGiovanni had begun working on branding the town with one of its three biggest taxpayers, Mars Wrigley Confectionery. The other two being Hackettstown Medical Center/Atlantic Health and Centenary University. Now M&M street signs and benches can be seen around Main street. She also began to work in conjunction with the Hackettstown Business Improvement District (Hackettstown BID) to recruit businesses.
With the emergence of e-commerce in the retail market, they decided to pursue more of a “food-based economy,” said Hackettstown BID executive director Jim Sheldon. With over 50 restaurants and four breweries along with numerous stores, it is attracting crowds from outside the community.
“We’ve seen a real growth in folks coming into town from the outside community. The breweries have really been the main impetus behind the outside community coming in,” said Sheldon. He said he has personally met patrons who have come from areas like Parsippany to people who have traveled across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania.
One place in particular that has drawn in an outside crowd in addition to its Hackettstown clientele is James On Main. Coming up on its’ second anniversary, the farm-to-table restaurant was nominated by NJ.com for “Best New Restaurant” last year. James On Main has close ties to the community as it gets many of its ingredients from local farms and businesses, not to mention it is owned by a Hackettstown resident. Head chef and owner Bill Van Pelt did not choose the location solely because it’s the town he grew up and lives in. “I think the Main Street downtown is one of the biggest draws to being a business, it’s a very walkable town,” he said.
All of the restaurants “recognize their strength is unified,” said Sheldon. There are restaurants like James On Main that are bring your own bottle, resulting in many patrons stopping by the breweries. When people are at the breweries, they are welcome to bring a meal from elsewhere many of which get purchased from restaurants in town.
Events organized by the Hackettstown BID have also helped draw in some additional street traffic. Some of these events include the Octoberfest, a bartending series and the Saint Patrick’s day parade. This coming spring will be the parade’s tenth anniversary, which draws in 10,000 to 15,000 people, according to Jim Sheldon.
Hackettstown will be focusing on some minor projects, such as repairing roads and renovating buildings, if necessary. However, Maria DiGiovanni said, “If we need something, we’ll never sacrifice our services to our residents to keep our debt zero or low.”
With no more debt or major projects in the foreseeable future, DiGiovanni recommends that anyone who has not visited the town come out. “Our Main Street looks great. We’re proud of that, our restaurants, our stores and our microbrews are something you need to check out if you haven’t and we welcome a lot of visitors. We’d love to see people come out and visit us.”