Editor's note: This is the first in a series about Millburn and Short Hills businesses called What's in Store. Check back tomorrow for a story on the restaurant opening up this fall at the Short Hills Train Station.
The recession and a high unemployment rate in the last few years have been tough on businesses everywhere and downtown Millburn is no exception. But despite the loss of numerous businesses and the nagging feeling among some residents that too many stores have closed leaving empty storefronts, several new stores have recently opened up and new ones like frozen yogurt and l Sports indoor cycling gym are on the way.
“Shops come and go. Some make it some don’t. That’s the nature of downtown,” says Peter Nalitt, a real estate developer who owns buildings in Millburn and Short Hills, as well as other towns. “We’ve got some good things happening now.”
In addition, according to the , the vacancy rate downtown is less than 6 percent – relatively low considering that the vacancy rate at neighborhood and community shopping centers in the U.S. rose to 11 percent in July, according Bloomberg News.
Some hope the new stores will create buzz and offer more destinations that will bring people downtown and keep them there longer.
Residents sometimes bemoan the fact that while there are a lot of nice things to say about Millburn – it’s clean, quiet and picturesque – it rarely buzzes with activity and there is not enough diversity in mix of businesses downtown. Millburn is home to a large number of nail salons, jewelry stores, Italian restaurants and women’s apparel stores, but there is no drugstore or bookstore.
They complain there are few places to go for a beer or a burger and no central, open-air plaza, which would encourage lingering and shopping. The town has a narrow range of restaurants.
And several restaurants have recently closed – Sono, Restaurant MC and Semolina, among them. For the past few years, there have been a slew of empty storefronts and “for rent signs,” and though some stores, such as , and jewelers, have been in business for decades, others close in less than a year.
Patch talked to a mix of new, old and upcoming businesses about the state of downtown and what it takes to survive, or thrive, here.
In the shadow of The Mall
Part of downtown’s challenge is being in the shadow of . When the mall was enclosed in 1981, Saks Fifth Avenue left Millburn Avenue. Now the mall is a retail magnet, with more than 1 million square feet of selling space and such destination stores as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, Saks, Apple, Verizon and restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory and Legal Seafood.
“I’ve been here 25 years,” says Nalitt. “When Saks and Lord & Taylor left, that changed the complexion of downtown. If people are waiting for the Gap to come in, that’s not going to happen. What you have in downtown are services.”
It has taken downtown Millburn a long time to recover from the expansion of The Mall at Short Hills, never mind compete with it, but things are improving and downtown is starting to show signs of new vitality.
“There may be some stores that are missing but there is nothing empty on Essex Street,” said Helen Kyle, assistant director of Downtown Millburn Development Alliance. “We have a dynamic demographic in our town and we’re pretty lucky in that people don’t shy away from us.”
Home furnishings retailer closed in June (the chain filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and shuttered its 27 stores), but a host of businesses have signed leases, received construction permits and plan to open their doors this fall.
Flywheel, the hip, New York based indoor cycling gym with locations in the Hamptons, Chicago and Boca Raton, recently signed a seven-year lease for the old Deborah Gilbert Smith space, and the company’s construction permit was approved in late July.
“There’s nothing else like it,” says Nalitt, who owns the 4,500-square-foot Flywheel space. “It has that New York kind of buzz, it will bring tons of people to town and it’s kind of exciting for people who spin.”
Flywheel won’t sell food or drinks, so people “are going to hang out before or after and go to other places to eat or shop," says Nalitt.
Merchants hope that Red Mango will be another destination when it opens in the space between Tinga and Bagel Chateau in October. David Rothberg and his wife, Jen, who opened a Red Mango in Summit in March, say their Millburn shop will be bigger and offer more flavors.
“We want this be a late-night destination that is a safe, bright place to hang out for adults and kids,” says Rothberg, a Short Hills resident with three children in Millburn schools. “We’re excited to be part of the reinvigoration of downtown,” says Rothberg, who is also looking forward to what he calls the “synergy” with Flywheel.
Other Comings and Goings
Behind the Red Mango space, new owners are planning to turn the empty Sono space on Essex Street into a wood-fired pizza shop in January. Rothberg said he is in early talks with other shop owners and the landord for an outdoor courtyard in the area around Sono and behind Red Mango, Tinga and Bagel Chateau.
Other stores have opened as well. Contessa Design, a home furnishings and design store, and , a wine and liquor store, recently opened across the street from each other on Millburn Avenue. and , both of which opened in the past year and sell jewelry and home accessories, report increased traffic and improved sales. And the Contemporary Art Gallery, which used to be in Soho, opened on Essex Street two months ago. “I live here, and wanted to bring something different to downtown,” said owner Greg Smith.
owner Julie Winer, who opened her doors on Main Street in October, has seen business improve though says she does not depend on foot traffic.
"Frankly, there are not enough people walking around town, and what we're doing is not a walk-in business," says Winer. Splurge also picks up corporate accounts and catering jobs, sells logo cookies and birthday cakes, holds cooking classes and in-store birthday parties.
A few doors down from Splurge, the owners of Hoboken-based Brass Rail, are taking over the 4,000-square-foot space that used to be Restaurant MC and will open up The Supper Club restaurant. (Marc Cooperman, the former managing director of Restaurant MC, plans to open a restaurant in the Short Hills train station, in partnership with township residents Jane and Jeff Tauber -- see story tomorrow on Patch.
While all these store openings are great for the town, some say the recession and parking remain challenges. Some have suggested angling parking on Millburn Avenue east of Main Street and reducing the lanes, but that's a county road and is up to the county.
"The greatest challenge [last year] was the bridge construction and the economy," say Curate owners Mary Litterman and Debra Camitta. "It's a double whammy and the economy still plays into the day-to-day business. People watch how they spend their money."
Camitta and Litterman have adjusted their merchandise offerings since opening, doubling their selection of women’s jewelry, increasing men’s desk accessories and formalizing their wedding gift registry. "Our business is definitely growing and knock wood, we had a great spring," says Camitta.
Joe Zonfrilli, the owner of : "It would increase our business if people could park closer to my operation." That said, Zonfrilli, who has not been hurt by the recession, does excellent business in sterling silver flatware, designer handbags, gold, diamonds and "recognizable art" such as prints by Picasso and Dali.
"People downsizing from large homes need to get rid of things so they bring them to us," he said.
Down the street, business has “been a little slow" at unWined, says owner Jose Sotelo of the new wine shop he opened in the old Millburn Camera space.
"It's sort of quiet during the day and picks up at night once the restaurants open," said Sotelo, who has a five-year lease for the store. He attracts customers with wine tastings and hopes that the limited number of liquor licenses and a large number of BYOB restaurants within walking distance will drive his business, despite competition from around the corner. He has given restaurants a wine list that patrons can choose from, call him up and he’ll deliver.
At co-owner Angelo Delbecchi says that “business is no longer what it was five or six years ago because of the economy but we’re doing fine.” Though business was down 10 percent in June, it was up more than 10 percent in July. How does Delbecchi and fellow owner Mario DeMarco account for the increase?
“I have no idea why,” Delbecchi laughs. “It’s the economy, it’s people’s confidence, it’s a little bit of everything.”
Millburn-Short Hills Editor Laura Griffin contributed to this report.