NJ downtowns explore new technology to serve residents, visitors
As New Jersey municipalities pushed their residents to support local businesses as much as possible when COVID-19 shut many of them down almost two years ago, some stores and shops were forced to establish a digital presence, including online ordering, for the first time.
But the internet, particularly publicly-available Wi-Fi, has been transforming downtown districts in the Garden State for the better part of a decade, according to Chris Bernardo, president and CEO of Bloomfield-based Commercial District Services.
Bernardo was among several community leaders who discussed the rapidly evolving technological changes during "Becoming a Tech Savvy Downtown," a virtual presentation at the recent 2022 New Jersey Downtown Conference.
Jef Buehler, leader of the Neighborhood Preservation Program under the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said local officials need to think about having the broadest reach they can, but while narrowing down their tech priorities.
"How can we, as districts, use technology to help us achieve those goals beyond just having Facebook pages or claiming businesses on Google Maps, for example?" Buehler said. "Maybe it's an app, maybe it's a QR code system, maybe it's an online thing, maybe it's an Instagram page. Whatever it is, do it and do it well, but don't try to do all the tools, because you're just going to overwhelm people and it'll dilute the result."
Making it easier to get around town
Different towns are emphasizing different things. In Perth Amboy, it's a QR code database for city restaurants; in New Brunswick, an e-gift card program. Westfield has a similar e-gift incentive, and is also installing electric vehicle charging stations.
In Newark and Asbury Park, scooter rentals in certain sections have proven popular.
"We wanted to provide mobility for households that do not have cars in our city. It was really an equity in transportation slant," Michael Manzella, Asbury Park deputy city manager, said. "But also, we wanted to provide an alternative form of transportation to mitigate the demand for parking."
Internet access remains the key
Finding and creating more usable, outdoor space is something municipal leaders and their constituents alike have identified as important in the wake of COVID, and Newark and Jersey City are working on that.
According to Manzella, the eventual emergence of 5G coverage will help the internet tie all these plans together.
But some cities are already making hyper-local improvements to online access.
"Newark Fiber is connecting local companies to high-speed internet at a fraction of the cost of national competitors," Vanessa Quijano, Invest Newark senior vice president of business development, said.
Technology can provide previously unthinkable benefits to New Jersey's downtowns, Bernardo said, even something like real-time monitoring of trash can levels.
But, he added, new tech is at its most useful when residents and stakeholders are given input as to what is needed most within a community. So the changes need to be conveyed in multiple languages — and with continued support for businesses that aren't as quick to adapt.