By Anya Bochman
For Ryan Gleason, former Government Affairs director of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and current executive director of the Downtown Denville Business Improvement District (BID), the township of Denville is the site of many happy childhood memories, as well as a family trip destination for the past 10 years. Gleason, who grew up in New Jersey, fondly remembers going to Denville Dairy and various other town haunts as a child.
Today, the non-profit organization that Gleason helps run and where he also serves on the Board of Directors, is looking to revitalize Denville’s downtown through business development and beautification; this role used to be the responsibility of volunteers from the town’s Chamber of Commerce, until the group discontinued their efforts last year in favor of the BID’s new model.
Gleason, currently of Belleville, became involved in the BID after the job opportunity came across his desk while he was working for the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce. Growing tired of city politics and newly married at the time, Gleason saw the opportunity as a great change of plans.
“My wife and I had talked about coming back to New Jersey, and I knew the business community there,” the executive director said. “I saw this job opening and knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
The mission of the Downtown Denville Business Improvement District, according to its website, is to “drive commerce and expand economic opportunity in Downtown Denville by providing services, development, improvements, and community-oriented programming that appeals to shoppers, workers, residents and visitors.” The BID aims to create a vibrant downtown that reflects Denville’s unique history, and to establish a space where “both businesses and residents can flourish.”
“I knew the community is amazing, and I wanted to make a difference,” Gleason stated. “We’re continuing the work [of the Chamber of Commerce] by thinking outside the box.”
Part of this innovative plan depends on marketing, and the BID has a specialized committee for that purpose which meets every month to discuss marketing, branding and advertising strategies for the organization, as well as its member business and property owners. The officers of the marketing committee also organize advertising campaigns, help promote BID events and programs and develop policies to spread awareness of downtown Denville.
“The marketing committee works to figure out what Denville’s brand is,” Gleason explained, while adding that a specific brand is still being determined. “The direction we are leaning in is the health and wellness aspect. Not a lot of people are aware of [downtown Denville’s] health food shops and yoga studios.”
Hiking trails and the town’s triathlon, as well as programs such as a Tai Chi demo class, a Dragon Dancing class and an upcoming Art & Walk program are also part of the health and wellness initiative.
Although the BID is seeking to branch out in new directions for Denville’s downtown, Gleason pointed out that it is also continuing to hold traditional township events such as the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, which took place in February.
“Currently, we are very events-focused,” Gleason said. “We had nine events last year, and right now we’re trying to bring people to the downtown for Dine Out Denville.”
To this end, the BID has an events committee which meets every month in order to organize, plan and run all special downtown Denville programs. Past events orchestrated by the committee included Hop into Denville, Summer Sidewalk Sale Days, the Denville Block Party, Denville Restaurant Week, Holiday Open House and Small Business Saturday. Committee members achieve their goals through developing marketing materials and soliciting sponsorships. The primary focus is promoting downtown Denville as the optimal shopping and dining destination.
Funding for the BID is the task of yet another committee, the appropriately named “fundraising and sponsorships committee,” which holds meetings to discuss BID fundraising efforts and to ensure that the BID is a fiscally solvent organization that has the resources needed to run effective programs and initiatives. As per the BID’s website, “the fundraising committee will help to develop sponsorship levels, craft fundraising campaigns, and come up with creative and innovative ideas to drive fundraising efforts to improve downtown Denville.”
“I’m the only full-time employee – the Board of Directors and volunteers help make the organization what it is,” Gleason said. “I couldn’t do it all myself – the dedicated volunteers are extremely helpful.”
The officers on the Board of Directors are selected by members of the nominating and ballot committee, which begins meeting in August to discuss and solicit the next slate of officers for the upcoming year. Committee members make recommendations for new board members, help to recruit potential officers and strive to increase participation in BID business and activities.
The volunteers who are not on the Board of Directors form a committee of BID members and stakeholders who are essentially “on call,” and help organize various events, as well as perform required functions. The latter may include stuffing envelopes, soliciting sponsorships, handing out flyers and working events and registration.
Other committees serving the BID mission statement include the finance committee, which meets quarterly to discuss the budget and financial health of the BID. The members of this committee help develop the BID’s annual budget, discuss the financial outlook of the BID and work with the BID’s accountant and auditor to ensure that the organization remains financially secure and strong.
Finally, the economic structuring committee serves the function of discussing major and long-term capital improvement and economic development projects on behalf of the BID and the downtown district. Economic structuring committee members identify potential challenges and propose solutions and processes to help address and improve the economic health of Denville’s downtown. Some of the tasks currently before this committee are parking, beautification and streetscape improvements.
Gleason enumerated on some of the improvements undertaken by the economic structuring committee, which include introducing hanging flower baskets in downtown Denville, and music being played every day near Broadway.
“The response [from the public] has been very positive; events are extremely well-attended, although that wasn’t just us – the weather helped,” Gleason joked. “And business owners have noticed an uptick in foot traffic.”
Local business owners also benefit from the BID’s endeavors partially via the organization’s professionals committee, which develops programs and activities designed to benefit, market and promote the various professional businesses located within downtown Denville. These goals may be accomplished through hosting B2B networking events, engaging in professional development programs and designing marketing and advertising campaigns to help bring attention to second floor establishments.
The BID’s main methods of communication and spreading awareness depend on what Gleason describes as a “robust email list” – comprised of business and property owners who pay into the BID – as well as social media in the form of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Additionally, the organization has a new website which features comprehensive links on local attractions and upcoming events, and has in the past six months used postcards to advertise its programs.
The reaching-out strategy is not limited to Denville, as the BID is spreading its message to the regional communities of Morristown, Randolph, Dover, Boonton and various others in the Morris County.
“We are the hub of Morris County for a good reason. Denville is central to all the major highways and public transportation. Denville’s downtown is everyone’s downtown,” the organization’s website points out.
“You can shop here, you can eat here, and you don’t have to live in Denville [to do this],” Gleason said. “We’re branching out a little locally and maybe even further later on.”
“Shopping locally” is a major philosophy for the BID, with Gleason pointing out that online retailers such as Amazon do not always provide unique products that can be found in the township’s mom-and-pop stores. In fact, the struggle for local business owners to compete with corporate entities such as Amazon is something Gleason saw in his days as a member of Staten Island’s Chamber of Commerce.
“Business owners realize that they have to look at different models in order to keep customers engaged,” the executive director stated.
Although in some ways, the BID is continuing the work of Denville’s Chamber of Commerce, Gleason explained several functional differences: the prior model was entirely volunteer-based and funded by dues, whereas the BID is in a position to hire staff and receive special grants from the state.
Currently, the BID is sponsored by a number of businesses, including Einhorn Harris, Duphiney Financial Network, Depasquale Spa, Highlands State Bank, Allied Wealth Partners, Hennion & Walsh, St. Claire’s Health, WP Realty and California Beach Hut.
Additionally, Gleason wanted to thank a group of business owners who spearheaded the effort for the new model of the BID in Denville.
“Kristin Pamperin of the Urban Muse, Megan Olenowski of Surprises in Store, Tom Dean of the Norman Dean Funeral Home and Councilman John Murphy – they were instrumental in getting this initiative off the ground,” Gleason said.
An upcoming event on the BID’s agenda is Denville Restaurant Week, which will take place from Sept. 23 -27, and will showcase dining specials at the downtown’s restaurants and food establishments.
“Folks can come out and eat, take their family or office to lunch,” Gleason said. “I would encourage everyone to check it out.”