By Jane Primerano
Downtown Hackettstown has seen many changes since the days of the Morris Canal.
Today Main Street has a few vacant storefronts, but in an age when retail is not strong this is not unusual.
“Filling the vacancies is difficult” in this age of internet shopping, said James Sheldon, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID).
“We have to educate the public about the importance of buying local,” Sheldon said. He explained he has been working with town officials to create a food sector in the downtown.
“You can’t go out to dinner on the internet,” he pointed out.
A big help to the restaurants in town was the construction of the Lackland Center at Centenary University, Sheldon noted. The productions by the Centenary Stage Company, the Young Performer’s Workshop, Centenary students and various music, dance and comedy troupes create numerous opportunities for nights out, and many of those nights out include dinner and a show, Sheldon said.
The Lackland season actually lasts all year and Centenary’s presence only a few blocks from downtown creates an opportunity, especially in nice weather, for theater goers to walk through the elegant Victorian neighborhood between Main and Jefferson streets.
Catherine Rust, general manager of the Centenary Stage Company said in an email message: “Centenary Stage Company has a wonderful relationship with our local restaurants, and our 22,000 patrons a year love the “culinary mecca” that Hackettstown has become in recent years. To be able to come to the Lackland Center for a wonderful show, and have an extraordinary meal at any one of our excellent restaurants makes for a world-class experience in culture. CSC patrons hail from every county in the state, as well as from New York and Pennsylvania, and we are so proud to have such a diverse array of excellent culinary options for them when they come to our little special corner of the Skylands.”
Relations between the school and municipality have improved.
“It’s been a constant progression,” Sheldon noted. A somewhat adversarial relationship has evolved into an effort to “leverage the assets we have in common,” he said.
Sheldon is very happy with the new Centenary president, Dr. David P. Haney. “He’s really sensitive to the community and to building a strong relationship with the town.”
Relations started warming under Haney’s predecessor, Dr. Barbara-Jayne Lewthwaite, Sheldon said. He noted Centenary was an early adopter of a program requiring community service for graduation. Before classes start for the year, students take part in a “community plunge,” volunteering with non-profit organizations in the area.
This year 11 students from the business department volunteered with the BID. They interviewed proprietors of town businesses and secured information important to the BID. At the same time, they learned about the town.
Lewthwaite, now a member of the business faculty, came with the students to the BID and moderated an exchange between student volunteers and BID employees, Sheldon said.
Another town/gown initiative is very visible. Centenary approached the town council with a suggestion for banners touting the university. Council approved the idea and the school sold 42 banners to businesses. The profit was turned back to the town which in turn donated 50 percent to the BID.
Hackettstown is also fortunate to have been discovered by craft breweries.
“Every town is looking for a microbrewery,” Sheldon said.
Rather than being a disadvantage, the proximity of Man Skirt and Czigmeister’s, within a couple of blocks, has turned out to be a plus. “People stroll back and forth,” Sheldon said. The fact that some restaurants in town will deliver to the breweries adds another dimension.
“They don’t present a bar atmosphere,” Sheldon said.