In Metuchen, big honor for its Main Street is just 1st step of even bigger plans

Borough, which won Great American Main Street Award on Monday, dreams of creating arts district around now-closed Forum Theater

Celebrating the award. (Metuchen Downtown Alliance)

In many ways, the prestigious Great American Main Street Award that Metuchen won Monday was the culmination of six years of exceptional work by the Metuchen Downtown Alliance, the town — and the thousands of volunteers who dedicated more than 25,000 man-hours.

Only three municipalities in the country were so honored.

For Dawn Mackey, the new executive director of the Alliance, the honor is just the start of something bigger and better for Metuchen.

“This is validation of the work and the investment that has been done,” she said. “This is proof concept of how to energize a Main Street. But this also is foundational.

“We have very aspirational plans for the future of Metuchen. It’s kind of cliche to say we’ve only just begun, but this is really going to provide a turbo-charge for the work that we’re going to do.”

Metuchen may only be 2.85 square miles, but Mackey won’t be happy until every part of it has been energized.

“The core of our town has been very well cared for and refreshed,” she said. “Now, it’s time to spread the love out to the outer circle of the business district.

“We’re already seeing the success of the inner core by bringing in really great high-end businesses like Beans and Bread and Pita Grill, but we’re starting to see things happening on the outskirts, like River Yoga studio and a new tattoo parlor.”

The efforts have brought even more investment — and interest.

“Businesses want to be here; residents want to live here,” she said.

The award

Metuchen was one of three municipalities in the country to be honored with the Great American Main Street Award on Monday at the 2023 Main Street Now Conference in Boston.

The award honors communities that are most effectively bringing economic vitality back to their downtowns, while celebrating their historic character and bringing communities together.

Metuchen is the third New Jersey municipality to win the award since it was established in 1980, joining Montclair and Westfield. There have been 106 total winners.

But none of this compares to the big wish.

Mackey said the ultimate goal is to restore the Forum Theater and create an arts district.

The approximately 600-seat theater was purchased by the town before COVID — it’s been closed since before then. Restoring it won’t be easy. And it won’t happen quickly, Mackey said.

“The first thing we want is to see the lights go back on in the theater, which, if you do this kind of work, you understand that that’s not a quick fix,” she said. “There’s a lot of strategic planning that’s needed. There’s great restoration work that needs to be done. It takes time.

“But, if we get the lights back on, I think we’ll see galleries pop up, maybe artists in residency and more public art in that part of town. If you set the vibe, you’ll bring in the right people, the right creators, and then you get this nice little district at one end of Metuchen that will serve as a beacon.”

Mackey started in the role six months ago, but she has been coming to Metuchen for years — and she loved what she saw happening. When the role opened, she quickly jumped at it.

“During my interview, I showed them all of the pictures in my phone that I had been taking over the years,” she said. “I said, ‘The town’s transformation is in my phone.’”

She is ready to add more pics.

The town — and the state — needs it.

“Small towns are our strength,” she said. “And small towns are not carbon copies of one another. Every one of them has its own personality.

“I think one of the things that makes Metuchen so amazing is that we don’t try to be something we’re not. We lean in to all the things.”

And, we mean all things, she said.

“There’s a little phrase amongst the volunteers,” she said. “We talk about the weird and the wonderful. The events we put on reflect that. As far as I know, we’re the only community in New Jersey that does outdoor wrestling on the plaza.

“For us, things like that evoke a different time — and show that we’re not a carbon copy kind of town. We don’t want to be anybody but the best version of ourselves.”

On Monday, the town learned its best version is as good as any in the country. And to think, it’s only a starting point.