Give us your business – please. And let the signs point the way.
Village of Monroe Mayor James Purcell has been advocating for Monroe’s two villages and the town that encompasses them to form a chamber of commerce to rejuvenate its less-than-robust downtown business district.
Mission (nearly) accomplished.
Hosting a meeting at Caffe Gelati on Monday evening, March 7, Purcell attracted nearly 75 business owners who wanted to learn more about the proposed chamber of commerce, close to finalizing its charter.
With Route 17M bringing thousands of cars through the village every day, Purcell said there is no reason Monroe’s business community should not be able to take advantage of that traffic. “The real heart of our business district is the state road, which runs directly through the village,” he said. “It’s where we want people to see what businesses and restaurants are here, entice them into parking those cars and get them to spend some time and money here.”
Monroe’s difficulty in getting the village to be more than a drive-by, said Purcell, is its sign law. The village sent out a request for proposals for a new comprehensive plan and for a planner to implement it. Responses are currently under review.
“Once we hire a planner, the process of getting a new master plan in place will take 18 months to two years,” Purcell said. Once a new plan is in place, the village intends to begin dissolving its architectural review board, which oversees signage … and the lack thereof.
“Why would anyone stop here if they don’t know what we have to offer?” said Purcell. “If we had signs showing what restaurants, stores and attractions we had to offer, it would induce people to get out and enjoy the community. Right now, they haven’t even got a clue that our downtown ‘Main Street,’ Lake Street, even exists if they are driving on 17M.
“We have 22 empty stores in the village and several on Lake Street. How can we draw attention to it if no one knows it’s there?” Purcell sees attractive signage and other streetscape changes as the fuel to fire up village visitors.
Purcell is acting as spokesman for the chamber committee while its chooses a president and board. “I’m only here advocating for the chamber’s creation,” said Purcell to the audience. “Warwick has been very successful in growing its chamber, and its president, Michael Johndrow, has been advising us on where to start and how to get businesses engaged in the process.”
Don Roberts, owner of State Farm Insurance on 17M, questioned how a new chamber would help the community, since the village’s current boards have not been particularly business-friendly. “With so many boards – an architectural review board, a zoning board, and a planning board – all seeming to work independently of each other, not much gets done,” he said. “We need to streamline the process.”
Monroe’s new chamber would focus solely on village businesses starting at its Lake Street corridor and fanning out onto Route 17M and Goose Pond Parkway, which borders its twin lakes. “We have new people on both the board for the village and the town, and you’re going to see some changes as a result,” Purcell said. “We invited the town of Monroe and the village of Harriman to take part in this chamber, but it’s primarily a village initiative.” (Purcell said the village of Kiryas Joel, which lies within the town of Monroe’s boundaries, was asked to participate, but had declined the invitation.)
Some in the packed room advocated using Crane Park for community fairs, the village’s seasonal farmer’s market (now held at Museum Village) and other events to attract tourism – similar to Warwick’s Applefest, which has grown from a local event to one that attracts more than 30,000 annual visitors annually.
Purcell told the group the park land donated to the village by Roscoe Smith in the early 1900s contains a provision that excludes any events earning a profit for individuals or groups from taking place on it.
Purcell said he’s examined the park deed, and while he can find no clause in it excluding for-profit recreational or tourism events being held there, “We haven’t been able to make it happen. But we are working on it with the Monroe Improvement Association,” a five member panel that oversees the landscaping in the park. The goal is to change the exclusion and bring in concerts, craft fairs and other events to lure the elusive tourism dollar.
One attraction that’s been easily overlooked is the Heritage Trail, the county’s linear park, which begins (or ends, depending on your direction) in the heart of the village. There is no sign – or anything else, save for cars with bike racks – to indicate the trail begins or ends there. Locals say it’s strictly word of mouth that brings people to Crane Park and the Trail’s entrance across the street.
The chamber’s exploratory committee is in the process of hiring an attorney and readying to select a president and board. “They will all be volunteers,” said Purcell. “But as we’ve seen in other communities with chambers, they do have a paid executive director to make sure everything runs smoothly. We hope to eventually get to that level.”
Purcell, a former village trustee who became mayor in 2010, has lived in the community for 20 years and would like to see business blossom. “Nothing’s changed here since I’ve moved here,” said Purcell. “We’ve seen economic development and tourism come to other communities, and I believe we can make it happen here if all of our local businesses are willing to get on board. I’d like to see our downtown have the same kind of ‘Greenwich Village’ type feel to it that other villages have accomplished – and grown business as a result – and see it fan out onto Route 17M.”
Purcell hopes at least 150 businesses will sign up and build up Monroe’s new chamber. Volunteers have been busy canvassing businesses to join. The new Monroe Chamber of Commerce will announce a president and board at its next meeting on Monday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. at a location to be announced. Its website, virtualmonroe.com, is currently under construction. Purcell said it will be up and running shortly.
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