How Montclair built a thriving downtown

On this sunny spring day in Montclair, Diamond Cycle is gearing up for bike riding weather.

“I really love bicycles, and getting people on bicycles, especially children. It’s a big part of why I do this,” said owner Craig Cornell.

There’s been a bicycle store on Bloomfield Avenue for more than a century. Cornell took over the business in the late 80s and watched the downtown district boom around him.

“It’s a drastic difference now compared to when I started in 1988,” he said. “The scene here now is just way busier, especially in the evenings. There’s a lot of great restaurants around so we get a lot more flow of people coming through. More people coming to Montclair for a destination and we’re getting a lot of business from that.”

And that means the efforts of the Montclair Center are making a difference. The Center runs the BID, or Business Improvement District. The BID helps existing business owners and recruits new ones to Montclair.

“We want to increase economic value for the area, and the way we increase economic value is we make sure that the businesses are supported and feel comfortable in what they’re doing, and we promote for them,” said Israel Cronk, who became executive director for the Montclair Center BID two years ago. “Making Montclair amazing is the end-all and be-all of all of our decisions,” he said. “Our tag line says it all: Where the city meets the suburbs. And so you get all of the convenience and the excitement of the city in the safety of a community.”

And in this community, there’s always something going on. All of these events help make the downtown area the heart of Montclair and it’s brought outside recognition, including the prestigious national Great American Main Street Award in 2015.

A stroll through the downtown district reminds you of the good old days, with mom and pop stores on every block and lots of friendly faces. But Montclair didn’t always have this “Mayberry RFD” kind of vibe.

“Montclair downtown wasn’t a place you hung around after 5 o’clock. It just wasn’t,” Cronk said.

Cronk says during the 1990s, the one-mile stretch of downtown Montclair had a vacancy rate of 50 percent. That led merchants and property owners to come together to form the Montclair Center Corporation in 2002 as they sought to make downtown safe and more attractive.

“That was like the first order of business. Clean the streets. Clean them, clean them, clean them,” Cronk said.

Fast forward to 2018, thanks to the BID and an improving economy, the downtown vacancy rate is about 5 percent. Montclair Center now boasts 324 retailers and restaurants, which pay an assessment to support the BID’s initiatives.

The downtown revitalization is also attracting millions of dollars of investments from private developers, who continue to transform Montclair while preserving its past.

“All we do is repurpose buildings that have existed. We protect their beautiful exteriors because of their architectural detail, and they we modernize the interior for what a professional needs today,” said Bob Silver, co-founder and CEO of the The Bravitas Group.

Silver decided to redevelop properties in Montclair after leaving a career on Wall Street. It was a smart bet.

“We have no vacancies right now in all of our properties. I think there’s been a migration out of New York. People don’t have to schlep to New York anymore, so they’re willing to build their businesses in suburbia. And if you have to be in suburbia, Montclair is a pretty cool place,” Silver said.

Melissa Adler thought so, too. The transplanted New Yorker brought a bit of hipster style to Montclair’s youngest residents when she opened children’s clothing store Dirt & Noise on Church Street.

“I moved to Montclair nine years ago from the city,” Adler said. “I have two boys and as they were growing and everything, I figured we needed a cool kids clothing store, so it seemed like the right thing. I’ve been here four years and it’s been great.”

Adler has been luckier than others.

“Everyone wants the name ‘Montclair’ on their address,” Cronk explained. “So our vacancy rate has gone down, but it doesn’t mean that businesses stay here for a long time. There’s quite a bit of churn and that’s kind of the reality of running a downtown.”

Before running the BID, Cronk ran Bangz, a hair salon that his father opened in a former Masonic Temple. He knows firsthand how hard it is to run a business, especially in an era when the overall retail industry faces challenges from competitors like Amazon. But Cronk hopes he’s giving businesses the tools they need to succeed.

“Even though we can’t make cash registers ring and actually put people inside of these vacancies, our vision and our mission is to create an environment where we can at least create opportunities for people to take advantage of,” Cronk said.

And that’s why the developers keep coming, and new businesses, like Dody’s Dresses, continue to pop up.

Duha Khaddash went from selling designer dresses from around the world online to selling them in her recently opened boutique on South Fullerton Avenue, in a town she visited often.

“I thought Montclair was a beautiful place, nice community,” Khaddash said. “On Jan. 2, after the new year, we opened. So far it’s good. It’s a little bit slow, but always we have hope it will work out.”

“New York has the slogan ‘you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,’ Montclair kind of has that on a softer level. So it’s not the easiest place to open up a business, but when you have it right, you’re going to absolutely explode,” said Cronk.

Or at least stick around for a very long time, like the bike shop on Bloomfield Avenue. Cornell says he’d like to be in business for a few more decades, at least.

The Montclair Center BID will do its best to make that happen for Montclair’s business owners and for an entire community that rediscovered, remade and embraced its downtown.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight