FIT president says things are looking up downtown

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OCEAN CITY -- Fairness in Taxes President Michael Hinchman was optimistic about the future of the city’s downtown at the latest FIT meeting, including the rebranding effort recently started by some downtown merchants.

At a December 2011 Fairness in Taxes meeting, the organization discussed the future of the city’s downtown, including a presentation by the owner of Stainton’s Square, who proposed a project to renovate the first floor of the former department store.

At a Feb. 3 FIT meeting, Hinchman said he is hopeful concerning the future of the downtown despite the recent closings of a number of stores. Main Street Ocean City, he noted, had been selected as a recipient of a 2011 Digital Design and Rebranding Services grant, which was provided by Main Street New Jersey.

The $20,000 grant, Hinchman said, would be utilized to “rebrand” the downtown, enabling Main Street and others to focus their marketing efforts beyond events, and to concentrate on marketing the downtown as a year-round shopping destination.

Hinchman said he attended a recent rebranding meeting, which included a team of stakeholders. Merchants, property owners and several residents from varying backgrounds served on a committee, he noted, with Cindy Williams of Cindy Williams Designs, who was hired to facilitate the grant.

While the process could take four or five months to complete, Hinchman said he thought the effort was off to a good start.

“It’s my thinking that the downtown has an opportunity to move forward,” he said, adding that Ocean City has a “cool downtown” that needs a “little more momentum to take off.”

With a new $400 million bridge and causeway scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day weekend – coinciding with the anticipated completion of the Stainton’s project, a business cooperative featuring 70 unique merchants on the first floor of the 100-year-old landmark – Hinchman said the momentum was at hand.

The visioning process of the rebranding committee includes an assessment of the downtown’s strengths and weaknesses, the identification of the target markets, the establishment of a new website and the creation of a new logo.

By summer, Hinchman noted, things could be in place to “really enhance” the downtown.

“They’re looking for a new tag line, to draw attention to the downtown, something that would compliment ‘America’s Greatest Family Resort,’” he said.

It would, however, require investment. Hinchman said he would like to see a number of improvements, including enhanced sidewalks, street lights and other infrastructure items.

Building a momentum, he said, would require a regularly scheduled trolley route to the downtown, the completion of a bicycle path across Ninth Street, connecting the bike path running north and south along Haven with the beach, boardwalk and the new multi-use path on the bridge.

“Some of us think there should be one-way traffic on Asbury Avenue, too,” Hinchman said.

Hinchman said he would like to see City Council and the administration take advantage of the opportunities the rebranding, new bridge and Stainton’s Square provide.

Stainton co-owner Harry Bassford, he noted, promised to “bring the building back to life” with 10-by-10-foot areas where merchants could peddle candles, jewelry, perfume, children’s toys, gifts and art. The project would nearly double the current 100 shops along Asbury Avenue, providing a unique opportunity to transform the downtown.

Hinchman said the city’s plan to renovate the aging City Hall Annex building, providing rest rooms and office space for the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce was a good idea.

“There are a lot of really good things going on downtown,” he said. The infusion of energy and enthusiasm, he said, should be capitalized upon.

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