Metuchen, New Jersey, has won the 2023 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA).
Established in 1995 by Main Street America, the GAMSA recognizes downtowns for their excellence in community transformation.
The Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA), an Accredited Main Street America program, was one of three winners selected from among eight semifinalists. Only two other downtowns in New Jersey – Westfield and Montclair – have previously received the honor.
The MDA was specifically selected for its work to revitalize Metuchen’s Main Street, create innovative programming, and introduce downtown management. Moreover, the MDA was recognized for leaning into inclusive events – such as Lunar New Year, the Hispanic Heritage Celebration, Juneteenth, and Pride on the Plaza – while maintaining Metuchen’s historic, small-town character.
During the past seven years, the MDA has worked to improve signage and storefronts; celebrate Metuchen’s increasingly diverse population and businesses; create placemaking; and support the buy-local experience through themed promotions and events developed to drive traffic to downtown businesses.
When the MDA was established in 2016, the business district had an over 20% vacancy rate. Now vacancies are at a single-digit, all-time low, and Metuchen is regularly receiving national recognition – most recently when American Girl introduced its 2023 Girl of the Year doll, Kavi Sharma, as a Metuchen tween who is proud of her Indian-American heritage and likes to take the train into New York from Metuchen’s downtown station.
Today’s downtown Metuchen balances old and new. You’ll find traditional businesses like a classic ice-cream parlor alongside a Dominican bakery run by a French Culinary Institute graduate, home goods sourced from Brooklyn and the UK, and a wide variety of top-rated restaurants reflective of the diverse area.
This transformation occurred with only one full-time MDA employee along with a dedicated team of volunteers who have donated thousands of hours.
From its inception, the MDA sought to develop a unique identity for Metuchen, rooted in a commitment and drive to create a more unexpected and interesting downtown experience. The recently built Town Plaza has provided the opportunity to host large and unique events such as annual pro wrestling matches, breakdancing exhibitions, and pre-prom parties. These draw thousands of visitors to the borough and complement more traditional events like holiday bazaars and restaurant weeks.
An emphasis on culturally inclusive programming appeals to both area residents and business owners, creating a welcoming and supportive environment that has helped draw over 50 minority-owned businesses.
As the downtown evolved, it attracted additional investment from state, county, and private organizations. These became imperative in keeping businesses afloat during covid lockdowns. For example, in 2020 the MDA organized restaurant grants for Feeding the Front Lines, which in turn led to a long-term partnership with New Jersey Sustain and Serve. The MDA also assisted businesses in transitioning to outdoor dining, which continues to add value and vibrancy to downtown.
The MDA provided grants to restore storefronts and signage, improve lighting, and add visual interest through street art and murals. Additional major county investment is enabling the creation of a new Arts District on lower Main Street. Featuring the historic Forum Theater, this project will extend the downtown district past its iconic railroad bridge and continue to build Metuchen’s reputation as a growing regional destination.
In June, Metuchen will celebrate its GAMSA win with a Downtown Funhouse party for all of Metuchen and those who love it. In the style of a Coney Island parade, it will feature sideshow performances, axe-throwing, music, food, dancing, children’s activities, street art, and much more.
The MDA is committed to creating even more opportunities for visitors and businesses alike to #DiscoverMetuchen and Explore, Experience, Enjoy Metuchen and its thriving, growing community. The Metuchen Downtown Alliance is excited about the future of our downtown and the exposure that this year’s GAMSA win brings to our community. The MDA is eager to continue its core strategies to create an inclusive, welcoming, and vibrant downtown with a lens on continuing to make Metuchen a destination for all – where you can always expect the unexpected.