Fellow Chatham Borough Residents:
My name is Thaddeus Kobylarz and I am running for mayor. Over nearly two years as an elected member of the Chatham Borough Council, including this past one as Budget and Finance Committee chair and member of the Planning Board, I have examined closely the workings of our municipal government. While on the whole Chatham Borough is admirably well-run, it has become clear to me that this municipality faces looming challenges which will require creative solutions going forward. The first is fiscal and is defined by a relatively flattened revenue stream, on the one hand, and steadily increasing costs for public services, on the other. The second is more broadly economic and concerns the need to revitalize the downtown business district and declining industrial zones along the Passaic River. A third challenge is to keep property tax increases to a minimum, something I am a staunch proponent of given New Jersey’s status as one of the most highly taxed states in the nation. All of these must be addressed while confronting a host of “quality of life” issues such as traffic congestion, pedestrian safety, meeting the needs of Chatham’s growing senior population, and preserving the Borough’s distinctive character, one marked by its visual charm, tree-canopied streets, and small-town feel.
Chatham’s “Quality of Life” Challenges
I will discuss some of our quality of life issues first. Chatham is an exceptional place to live, with its appealing tree-lined streets, top-tier school system, first-rate recreational programs, and endearing traditions such as the Fishawack Festival, Farmers Market, and Fourth of July parade. For me, the charm and character of the Borough seem reminiscent of images from a Norman Rockwell painting. And yet there remain challenges that need to be confronted, particularly as we move ever deeper into the twenty-first century.
On top of almost everybody’s list is traffic congestion along Main Street, and the attendant problems created on nearby side streets, including increased vehicular queueing and periodic speeding in residential neighborhoods. Moreover, this is a pedestrian safety issue too, especially with the cut-through traffic that bypasses Main Street along routes where children walk to and from school. And that’s not to mention the congestion issues on other Borough streets during commuter drive times, including both Watchung and Lafayette Avenues.
I believe a two-pronged approach is required to address this challenge. First, the Borough should perform a comprehensive traffic flow analysis, one that examines our streets through the lens of a systems engineering framework. The current model is to have traffic studies paid for by developers, or done by the state or county whenever their roads are involved. But treating traffic issues just one or several streets at a time results in “traffic whack-a-mole” whereby the problem tends to be shunted onto other, neighboring streets. The time has come to bring in a traffic engineering team to analyze the Borough’s system of streets holistically and propose solutions, including traffic calming measures and in some cases revised traffic rules, that will result in more efficient and optimized traffic flow patterns around town.
In addition, the Borough should step up its effort to have another on-off ramp built along Route 24, somewhere between the existing ramps in Summit and Morris Township (a 6.6 miles stretch) but outside of town. Admittedly, this is a hard climb. It’s been tried before, with neither Trenton nor the County offering any real help. Even so, I believe this is battle worth fighting, and I’m willing to take the lead. In the meantime, though, the Borough should insist that the State make permanent the electric signs providing drive times to Route 287 that were placed temporarily along Route 24 last year, resulting in some measure of traffic reduction along Main Street. Moreover, we should push both the State and County to install “smart traffic lights” along Main Street and Watchung Avenue. This is a vehicle traffic control system that combines an array of sensors and artificial intelligence with traditional traffic lights to efficiently manage vehicular and pedestrian flow.
A second quality-of-life challenge is to address the needs of the Borough’s growing senior population. Our seniors are a vital part of community life in Chatham. They are the keepers of our traditions. They volunteer in support of our institutions. They anchor our families. Yet, too often once the kids leave for college, the parents leave as well – choosing not to age in place. We can and must do more to make Chatham a place where its seniors stay and flourish. Among the proposals are: create a Senior Advisory Committee to apprise the Mayor and Council of issues important to Chatham’s senior residents; connect seniors in need of occasional or periodic assistance (with everything from home maintenance to food shopping to shoveling snow) to a volunteer group of capable helpers; institute a phone line with daily updates on Chatham activities and meetings; provide a shuttle that circulates both along Main Street and around the Borough to convey non-driving seniors to shops, restaurants, appointments, and the Chatham Senior Center.
A third challenge, very simply, is to preserve Chatham Borough’s unique and distinctive character. I love this town’s visual charm, small-town feel, and tree-canopied streets. And I want to keep it that way. We must ensure that the pristine nature of our residential neighborhoods remains as such. In other words, we must strive to keep Chatham Chatham, something I will do as mayor of this wonderful borough.
My Economic Revitalization Initiative
Tackling the Borough’s fiscal and economic challenges is no easy task. Projected rising costs in public services over the next few years will require an increase in municipal revenue while at the same time we want to keep property tax increases to a minimum. Compounding this situation is the fact that Chatham is already streamlined in terms of operating and capital expenditures; has few, if any, remaining viable shared-service options; already pursues, painstakingly, grants and low-cost financing; and has exhausted its few existing supplemental revenue streams, such as the leasing of space on municipal property. As such, there are few, if any, cost-cutting opportunities available to the Borough. On top of that, there is widespread desire to revitalize the downtown business district and declining industrial zones along the Passaic River.
I believe the way forward is through a program of “smart” economic revitalization. First, we must adopt a strategy that expands our tax base while mitigating associated cost increases. Moreover, we must do so while preserving the traditional character of Chatham Borough (i.e. by “keeping Chatham Chatham”) and avoiding negative impacts on schools and traffic. Second, we must find a way to fill the approximately 50,000 square feet of vacant office space in town. Increasing the number of daytime workers in the Borough would be an economic boon to our downtown shops and eateries. It would also benefit our residents inasmuch as it would help make those businesses economically sustainable.
We can do this in part by attracting new businesses to our empty office spaces along Main Street and in the old industrial districts along River Road and Commerce Street. This would allow an expansion of our tax base without focusing exclusively on the addition of new residential units in town (thus mitigating the accompanying increases in public service costs). Moreover, we could do so in areas zoned for mixed-use structures that also happen to require economic, structural, and/or architectural improvement (for example, along River Road).
Of course, to make this plan succeed we would need to attract economically viable businesses to the Borough. One obvious target is the technology and innovation sector. To put it plainly, we could “pivot to the new economy” and seek to bring in growth-oriented startup, early-stage, and established enterprises to help foster a thriving downtown commercial zone, both along Main Street and in the two industrial districts. This strategy would have the added benefit of spawning a secondary “support” economy that would cater both to the newly flourishing commercial district and to Chatham residents more generally. Indeed, everything from additional daytime eateries to coffee shops, food stores, boutiques, IT service establishments, business consultant firms, IP law firms, and the like would be needed to render this revitalized downtown “ecosystem” complete.
I have been working diligently since early 2018 to realize this vison through the economic revitalization initiative I conceived with the backing of our current mayor, Bruce Harris. I initiated a conversation in March of that year with the Morris County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) and we devised a framework whereby the Borough would serve as centerpiece of a larger, countywide program to attract technology and innovation companies to the region, both at the entrepreneurial and more established levels, for the purpose of improving our local economy.
Under this partnership with the MCEDC, Chatham has emerged as the focal point of a joint marketing effort to attract technology and innovation firms to the Borough, with other Morris County municipalities to be added later on. The MCEDC has committed to funding a significant portion of the Borough’s side of the campaign. The Borough-focused effort has been named “Startup/Moveup Chatham.” The countywide portion is called “Startup/Moveup Morris.” You may have already seen the yellow banners along Fairmount Avenue and Main Street with the inscriptions “Startup/Moveup Chatham” and “Destination: Innovation” on them; these are the product of this growing marketing program.
A second aspect of my economic revitalization initiative has been the Borough’s partnership with the Garibaldi Group to create an innovation-oriented coworking space (“The Station”) at 14 Fairmount Avenue. The goal is to have this space serve as the centerpiece of the Startup/Moveup Chatham campaign, thereby helping the Borough define itself as a technology and innovation hub for Morris County. The Station officially opened in July of this year and already boasts its first permanent innovation economy resident (Boxcar, an app-driven parking and transportation service) as well as over 70% of its offices leased. Besides offering workspace opportunities to individuals and companies, this facility serves as a venue for technology, business, and cultural gatherings.
A third component is the creation of an Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC), a group of knowledgeable and experienced volunteers that will advise on ways to foster and preserve a flourishing economic and commercial sector in the Borough. Among its tasks will be to promote Chatham as an attractive destination for technology and innovation firms as well as an ideal place in which to do business generally. I believe a Borough committee of this sort is long overdue, particularly when seventeen of the thirty-nine municipalities in Morris County already have one. It’s no longer just larger cities that seek to grow their economies in a more directed and proactive fashion; smaller municipalities now do so as well. It’s time for Chatham Borough to follow suit.
To be sure, there is a great deal more work to be done. Convening the EDAC and acting on their recommendations is one item. Pushing forward with the Startup/Moveup Chatham campaign is another. In fact, one central reason I wish to be mayor is so that I may continue with this initiative to revitalize the Borough’s economy, but with the added clout (for example, when persuading companies to move to Chatham or dealing with Trenton) that the position will bring.
I believe we can revitalize our downtown economy while preserving the charming character and small-town feel of our residential neighborhoods. I also believe we can meet the quality of life challenges that will confront our community as we progress further into the twenty-first century. Indeed, I am convinced that the vision I have articulated is one that will improve the general well-being of all of our residents. I hope you will help me realize this plan by supporting my candidacy for mayor of Chatham Borough. Thank you.
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