Lawrenceville Main Street celebrates its 10th anniversary.
A dozen years ago, Main Street in the historic village of Lawrenceville looked like a ghost town. The hardware store was shuttered, the grocery store was boarded up and the pharmacy had closed its doors. Leaves collected in the corners of the steps to the businesses, and a few stray weeds poked up between the cracks in the sidewalk.
But as Lawrenceville Main Street prepares to kick off its 10th anniversary celebration this month with a parade — set for 2 p.m. Oct. 23 — Main Street is a thriving business district with restaurants, offices, hair salons and boutiques. In the spring, round wooden planters are filled with flowers and in the fall, straw-filled scarecrow figures greet passers-by on the sidewalk.
The turnaround in the fortunes of Main Street is due to the efforts of Lawrenceville Main Street, which was organized in 1995 as a volunteer-driven, nonprofit civic improvement association. The goal was to breathe new life into the village of Lawrenceville. William Dickey, who served as the first president of the fledgling organization, recalled its origins in a recent interview at his Pennington home. Mr. Dickey left Lawrenceville Main Street's board of directors in May, one month before he retired as a history master at The Lawrenceville School. "I remember it as a quiet, quaint and thriving village, with customers from The Lawrenceville School and the community," said Mr. Dickey, who graduated from the private preparatory school in 1964.
"There was a grocery store and a post office." But one by one, the businesses closed their doors. A barbershop, a bakery, a real estate office, a dry cleaner and a pizza shop were among the few businesses that were left on Main Street and Gordon and Phillips avenues by the mid-1990s.
The township's Historic Preservation Advisory Committee grew concerned about the appearance of the village of Lawrenceville, said Mr. Dickey, who served on the advisory committee in 1995. The village is listed on the state and national Register of Historic Places. "There were deteriorated buildings and vacancies," Mr. Dickey said. "The HPAC was very concerned that if there was no economic interest in businesses in the village, it would continue to deteriorate physically. We decided to try to do something about it."
The HPAC was aware of the Main Street New Jersey program, which grew out of a similar program begun by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1977. The Main Street New Jersey program, which was begun in 1989, offered guidance and technical assistance in downtown revitalization efforts. In November 1995, the HPAC sponsored a meeting to gauge the community's interest in a revitalization effort, Mr. Dickey said. A representative of New Jersey Main Street explained the program at the meeting, which was attended by business owners, residents and representatives of the municipal government and The Lawrenceville School, he said.
The revitalization effort gained community support and in early 1996, the Main Street Project was born. It consisted of several volunteer-run subcommittees, including the design, economic restructuring, promotion and traffic subcommittees. In 1997, the Main Street Project was accepted into the Main Street New Jersey program. The state program sent staffers to help train the volunteer committees and Ann Garwig, Main Street Project's executive director.
It also arranged for consultants from the national Main Street Program to visit the village and offer tips to aid in the revitalization effort. The Main Street Project changed its name to Lawrenceville Main Street in 2000. "Within five years, we had turned the economy around and community spirit was revived," Mr. Dickey said. "The physical improvements took a little longer than we initially estimated, but we accomplished a lot. I was naive and innocent, but I was also aware of Margaret Mead, who said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.'"
While the HPAC spearheaded the revitalization effort, The Lawrenceville School also played a role in it. The school provides the headquarters for Lawrenceville Main Street at 17 Phillips Ave. The school does not charge rent for the first-floor office and it also pays for the utilities. "This is our neighborhood. We got involved (in Lawrenceville Main Street) because some of our faculty were involved in it from the beginning," William Bardell, the school's chief financial officer, said in a nod to the efforts of Mr. Dickey and his wife, Jean Dickey.
It is "very gratifying" for the people who become involved in activities such as Lawrenceville Main Street, Mr. Bardell said. The school encourages its staff to become involved in community activities, and not to remain behind the fence that defines the school campus, he said. In addition to providing office space and a conference room, The Lawrenceville School allows Lawrenceville Main Street to use its golf course for its annual golf scramble fundraiser, Mr. Bardell said.
Weeden Park, which is host to Lawrenceville Main Street's summer concert series, also belongs to The Lawrenceville School, Mr. Bardell said. The park is located next door to the Lawrenceville post office on Main Street. Mr. Bardell said the school, which owns additional property on Main Street, paid for its share of the cost of reorganizing and resurfacing the parking lot behind the buildings between Phillips Avenue and Craven Lane.
The Lawrenceville School also replaced the brick pillars and the fence between those pillars on its campus facing Main Street, he said. Lawrenceville Main Street has done work on its side of the street, so it only made sense that the school should make improvements on the campus side of the street, he added. School officials are pleased with the revitalized and attractive business district because it offers restaurants and other amenities to the families of The Lawrenceville School's students when they visit, and also for the families of the teachers who live on campus, Mr. Bardell said.
"People like being in this environment," he said. "They can walk across the street and get a bite to eat or rent a video. It's a really nice pedestrian environment. The small shops and the whole scale of the village is very attractive." Mr. Bardell acknowledged that "it wasn't an easy path to get started," but Lawrenceville Main Street has made a difference in the village of Lawrenceville.
It took the right combination of things — the economy and people who worked hard — to make it successful, he said. Those efforts have paid off, as new businesses have filled in the vacant storefronts. The list of new businesses includes eight restaurants, two retail stores, an art studio, three hair salons and a pet grooming business.
Among the people who worked hard on the project is Buz Donnelly, who is president of Lawrenceville Main Street's board of directors. He served for six years on the Business Development Committee and served on the golf scramble committee for eight years. Mr. Donnelly said he is pleased with Lawrenceville Main Street's success, but it is time for the group to think about where it wants to go next.
Earlier this year, the board of directors, some longtime volunteers and Main Street New Jersey representatives held a retreat to discuss where the group has been, where it is now and where it wants to go in the future, Mr. Donnelly said. One of those suggestions was to involve more residents — those who live in other parts of the township — in Lawrenceville Main Street, he said. Efforts could be made to include Boy Scouts, Lawrence High School students and Rider University students in the activities, for example, he added.
"To keep (Lawrenceville Main Street) vital, we need to draw in more volunteers," Mr. Donnelly said. "Volunteers are the heart and the life of the group, and we need to keep them interested." For the next few months, the board of directors plans to work on a new mission statement and vision statement, he said. The original focus of the group was to revitalize the Main Street business district, and now that it has succeeded, the group needs to update its mission and vision statements to carry it through for the next 10 years, he said.
"The transformation (of the business district) has been great and we want to maintain it," Mr. Donnelly said. "People know Lawrenceville Main Street. The goal is to maintain, enhance and support it." Ann Garwig, the executive director of Lawrenceville Main Street, said the business district has been expanded to include James Street and a portion of Gordon Avenue. "It would be nice if (those areas) would fill in with shops," Ms. Garwig said. "We are not looking to expand beyond that area. We want to keep it small, with enough businesses that support each other."