Among the local merchants and professionals who make up the Upper Main Street Alliance, the organization that is guiding the redevelopment, debate is stirring over when, how and to whom to advertise the changes that are under way. One key question: Whom will the city attract to live in sparkling new high rises — local empty-nesters or young strivers from outside the city or tenants who are somewhere in between?
After more than a decade of cleaning up streets, brightening storefronts, recruiting developers and guiding the purchase of blocks of aging structures, changes are now strikingly visible. The redevelopment’s first new residential tower, the 222-unit Meridia Metro at 94 State St., is set to open this fall, and as many as 1,000 units could open in the next few years in the downtown.
At its board meeting in June, the Upper Main Street Alliance was presented with marketing themes by two professional outfits. The concepts ranged from a conservative “Hackensack: Bergen County’s Main Street” campaign to an edgier “The Sack: Not Your Mother’s Main Street.”
The two companies plan to canvass North Jersey residents and marketing professionals to gauge interest in a total of four to five options, said Al Dib, the alliance’s executive director. At the group’s meeting this week, members decided to narrow the branding options for the surveys within the next month.
Whichever option is selected through the surveys will be presented to the City Council and subject to its approval, said Mayor John Labrosse.
Jerry Lombardo, chairman of the alliance, said that before the board proceeds, he wants to see the survey results and to analyze the renters — young, older, professionals, retirees — who are drawn to the Meridia Metro building.
Eric Anderson, a board member and real estate broker who markets several redevelopment sites, is less patient; he says the downtown should be marketed aggressively, starting now.
“We have to do something wild and crazy to get some attention to our area,” Anderson told the meeting.
“Every building we have go up attracts a different group of people,” Anderson said in a later interview. “I think it’s very important that we start creating a new identity for the downtown.”
The challenge, experts say, is peddling a vision of new neighborhoods that as yet don’t exist — in effect, persuading would-be residents to look beyond the city’s sedate and dated downtown.
“We’re trying to define a moment in time during which people are trying to make a change,” Axiom Communications President Ron Simoncini told the group.
Marc Kalan, a marketing professor at Rutgers University, said that however the alliance markets the downtown, it had better deliver.
“A brand, when you really think about it, is the setting up of potential expectations for potential customers,” Kalan said. He said cities must find what it is about their location that stands out from competitors and play to that strength.
The alliance is hearing pitches from two marketing firms, Axiom of Secaucus, and Words and Pictures of Park Ridge, which each conducted small-scale surveys to gauge public opinion about the city.
Axiom asked 13 people in three focus-group meetings what they associated with Hackensack. Participants said the city’s downtown is a “blank slate” that has a rare opportunity to develop new housing and commercial properties near public transit options.
Words and Pictures surveyed 78 people at the city’s recent business expo. Ryan Huban, its engagement director, told the alliance that people who answered overwhelmingly “want something different and something cool” in the new branding.
Different and cool could work for people in either demographic group the marketers are eager to impress, millennials and baby boomers, said Robert Goldsmith, president of Downtown New Jersey, an advocacy group,
“On its face it sounds like the groups are disparate. But they’re not,” Goldsmith said. He said that if the city can attract residents, then retailers and restaurateurs will arrive to serve them.
Neither baby boomers in their 50s and 60s nor most millennials in their 20s and 30s have young children, Goldsmith said, and both groups want to live within walking distance of public transportation and entertainment and dining options.
The two age groups already make up more than half Hackensack’s population, according to 2013 U.S. Census data.
Path to success
Some experts argue that distinctive restaurants or stores should first be established to give people a reason to relocate to a remade downtown.
Dib, the alliance director; Anderson, the real estate broker; and other alliance members agreed that it’s important to have such establishments to draw new residents and shoppers to make the redevelopment successful.
Kenneth Pasternak, chairman of the KABR Group, which has multiple residential and commercial developments in North Jersey, said his company is closely watching Hackensack for investment opportunities. But he doesn’t think branding should be a priority right now.
Pasternak pointed to the absence of unique restaurants or retail on Main Street, the thoroughfare that should be a draw for new residents.
“To have a branding campaign without destination-quality offerings,” Pasternak said. “I think it’s early.”
Vince Baglivo, who heads public relations for the Ironbound District in Newark, advised that the district or city start marketing the redevelopment now but cautioned that the city needs something real to market.
He said the brand, which could be a name, catch phrase or image, must elicit a strong response from its audience, including people who already live in Hackensack.
“If people don’t say ‘Yeah, that’s it,’ then it’s very hard to convince people” that downtown Hackensack should be their new home, Baglivo said.