Council Demands More Info on Concerts
Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn and Jacques Howard of the Office of Economic Development sought council approval to apply for use of $55,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for the 2010 events, but under questioning from the council, it came out that last year's Music in the Plaza series was put on at a cost of $26,200 in funds from business donors after the council turned down a request for $6,000. Councilman Adrian Mapp then pointed out that the pair were asking for almost 10 times last year's request.
Wynn and Howard pitched the concerts and related events as a way to draw people to the downtown, creating a destination not only for entertainment but for shopping and dining. Councilman William Reid was effusive in his enthusiasm for the proposal, but others found it lacking in planning and saw no proof that past concerts enhanced business downtown.
Councilman Cory Storch said he was "really disappointed" with the presentation, saying a lot of questions were raised and only one was answered. Based on the presentation, he said, "I would have to say you weren't listening to us."
Councilman Rashid Burney questioned whether the program really created economic activity, saying merchants told him it had not.
Although past concert events received the endorsement of Special Improvement District officials and the Chamber of Commerce, no representatives of either group were present Monday. Wynn said he would be meeting later in the week with SID officials.
As the discussion continued, some council members relented and said they might be inclined to approve a $40,000 UEZ request for a vote at next Monday's meeting, if more information on the program's impact on the downtown economy could be proven. But besides needing council approval to apply for the UEZ funds, the administration would still have to vie for approval from the state agency that grants use of the funds. If the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority were to approve the funding in March, it would take two more months for it to become available.
Council members wanted to know how much money was left in the fund, which accrues from the reduced sales tax charged by retailers in the zone, and also questioned whether in hard times a use other than entertainment might be more appropriate.
Howard called such events a "proven formula" for building up a city's attractiveness and Wynn portrayed the proposed eight gigs as a job opportunity for local performers, but their only unequivocal cheerleader was Reid. The program began two years ago with four concerts, and last year a car show and movie were added. Wynn responded to doubts voiced by Storch and Burney on last year's event by insisting, "It was successful."
But Mapp said, "I think the governing body wants some metrics that we can get our arms around."
If Wynn and Howard can show merchant support and produce more details on the cost and benefits of the events, the council may approve the proposal next Monday. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.