What a difference a year makes.
Just 12 months ago, there were so many empty storefronts along Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair that the Business Improvement District commissioned artists to install artwork there.
This year, those storefronts are filled with merchandise.
According to Jason Gleason, executive director of the Business Improvement District, on Church Street for Small Business Saturday, the vacancy rate in Montclair Center has declined from 18% in January to 11% this month.
Forty-nine new businesses have set up shop in the district, he said; subtracting the loss of 18 leaves a net of 31.
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"That's incredible," he said. He cited the many new restaurants coming in, including Porta in the space formerly occupied by Montclair Social Club; the steakhouse in the building that housed The Crosby and Fin; Pineapple Express Barbecue at Lackawanna Plaza, and the new Mochinut donut shop. But in addition to restaurants there are also what he calls "different and interesting" businesses such as the Gravity Vault, for interactive bouldering, One River School for art classes. and a new physical therapy practice called Integrated Core Concepts combining physical therapy, yoga and psychological services.
Recently, he connected Integrated Core Concepts with the new Vanguard Theater for a collaboration involving their current play, "Next to Normal."
"We have synergies going on and our office sector is going nuts," he said. "There is a ton of interest in Montclair Center."
Gleason's statistics don't include the new businesses in Montclair's other shopping districts, such as Walnut Street, Upper Montclair, Watchung Avenue and the South End, all of which were also welcoming shoppers with promotions for Small Business Saturday.
But Montclair Center, with 400-plus shops and services on or near Bloomfield Avenue, is the largest shopping district. On Saturday, young musicians from Jazz House kids plied their instruments despite the frigid temperatures and performers sang numbers from "Next to Normal." Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted children, and members of the town council distributed shopping bags and free parking passes for return visits to those who showed proof of local purchase.
Councilor Peter Yacobellis, who previously led the Small Business Saturday team at American Express, said the 11th-annual event has taken on great importance this year for the many Montclair businesses which struggled with the pandemic and flooding from Ida.
"We want to encourage people to not just shop small but also dine small and patronize service operations in town such as hair and nail salons, gyms, lawyers and photographers," he said. The town and the BID have launched a new online business directory, loveourmontcair.com, and he urged people to check it for items and services before procuring them elsewhere.
One of the biggest obstacles to shopping in Montclair — parking — is getting much better, Yacobellis said. "Now, with parking decks on Seymour Street and soon on Glenridge Avenue, plus the lots already in place, we have parking to meet demand."
Free two-hour holiday parking at meters throughout town began Saturday, through year-end.
Kristin Murphy of Glen Ridge was in Wow Sports Cards on Church Street picking up a Pokémon game, on sale, for her 11-year-old son Connor.
She noticed the new store last week when she was in town with her son to check out the Pokémon cards at East Side Mags and then get a bite at Bareburger.
"I like shopping locally for the ease of it," she said. "I'm not a web shopper. I like to touch and see things, and I like the interaction."
Mayor Sean Spiller said he was "excited to be here and say, 'Shop local today, but hey, shop local every day'" he said. "It's really a mindset. We've all seen the big box stores take over. But if we support our downtown we can maintain our unique character."
Councilman and former mayor Bob Russo said it's remarkable see the changes downtown since the pandemic, when small businesses were suffering so greatly, "Church Street is really hopping," he said. "Look at this, we have a couple of new businesses right here. We got the Clairidge Theater back, that's really important. The whole downtown area is coming back."
Gleason said that next year the BID will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and he's been looking through photos of the downtown from back then. "It's really incredible what Montclair Center has become over the last 20 years," he said. "We're seeing bigger and grander things, like the jazz festival coming to downtown, and working with our nonprofits."
Spiller gave credit to his predecessors for the planning that has gone into the transformation. "Over the years, the downtown has really filled in, starting with the South Park Street revamp up to now with the Arts Plaza at Seymour Street. Each area connects and it becomes very walkable. Then you look at Upper Montclair and the South End, and there are a lot more spots people can visit."
Julia Martin is the 2021 recipient of the New Jersey Society for Professional Journalists' David Carr award for her coverage of Montclair for NorthJersey.com.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Montclair NJ shopping promoted on Small Business Saturday