I now have the privilege of delivering the State of the Town address, reflecting on key 2020 accomplishments and 2021 priorities, including the vision we have set in motion for our future.
First and foremost, I’m happy to report that the state of our Town remains strong and our future prospects are very bright, in spite of the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
Our strength lies in the dedication of our Town employees, the enduring commitment and volunteerism of our residents, and the resiliency of our businesses, all reflected in how we responded to the pandemic. Here are a few exemplary highlights:
Launched the We Love Local campaign days after the shutdown was announced and raised $300K for local businesses
Pivoted to virtual operations across all departments
Offered a wide range of virtual classes and programming through our Recreation Department
Opened Memorial Pool for a safe and successful summer season
Created Virtual Downtown Westfield as non-essential businesses were forced to close
Welcomed Open Quimby with special events and festive outdoor dining spaces
Reimagined popular community events, such as Alt AddamsFest and Drive-Thru Santa
Established first virtual Zoom court in Union County
Redirected the Police Department’s School Resource Officers to serve as Community Resource Officers to assist seniors and residents in need
Created Online Coronavirus Information Center and held Facebook Live updates to address community’s pandemic questions
Delivered more than 125 written COVID updates to ensure residents had latest information and ready access to resources
Contacted seniors via weekly wellness calls
While the pandemic consumed much of our focus, it did not deter us from making progress on the transformational plans for our downtown and positioning Westfield for post-pandemic success. By recently designating Streetworks Development LLC as the developer for their Lord & Taylor properties and the train station parking lots, we culminated a public planning process that began almost three years ago to establish an overdue, long-term vision for Westfield. Their designation marks the beginning of a new public and actionable phase in our planning, which will be a main focus of ours this year.
In addition to these critical planning and redevelopment efforts, we also ensured throughout 2020 that we continued to deliver on the four key priorities I committed to when I was elected: (1) strong fiscal oversight, (2) charting a vision for our future, (3) championing quality of life issues, and (4) increasing resident engagement. While uncertainty over the fiscal impact of the pandemic deferred some key 2020 initiatives, I am proud of the accomplishments we made on many fronts this year.
✔️Led our community through a global pandemic, prioritizing health, safety, and communication, while also adapting operations to ensure the safety and welfare of employees, residents, and businesses
✔️ Reduced Town budget by 1.32% in anticipation of pandemic-related revenue declines; first decrease in eight years, in spite of 2% increase in non-discretionary expenses
✔️Maintained a healthy $7M budget surplus and AAA bond rating
✔️Made significant progress on downtown redevelopment plans, a giant leap towards our downtown’s transformation
✔️Continued to prioritize our RVL fight for better service and peak one-seat rides by lobbying the Governor, legislature and NJ Transit as co-chair of the RVL Mayors’ Alliance
✔️Introduced park improvements at Mindowaskin, Tamaques, and Sycamore, and made significant progress on Edison School athletic complex proposal in collaboration with BOE
✔️ Planted approximately 500 trees
✔️ Implemented new outdoor dining and land use policies that enabled improvements to Downtown businesses
✔️ Received $833,000 in pursued grants
✔️Commemorated Westfield’s 300th anniversary with a variety of events funded by private donors and sponsors, including lectures, art displays, time capsule, architectural tours, the first African American walking tour, and more
✔️Established Public Arts Commission, resulting in two new murals funded through grants and donations, and successful first public art installation, Art Takes Flight, which raised $24K through public art auction to fund future art exhibits
✔️Awarded Silver Certification by Sustainable Jersey for the first time in Town history, increasing eligibility for grants and funding
There is a much more exhaustive list of accomplishments that can be found on the Town website, but I prefer to spend my time this evening focusing on our future.
Our top priority in 2021, without question, is to continue to ensure the health and welfare of our employees, residents, and businesses. As the vaccine rolls out more broadly over the course of this year, we will begin to gradually reclaim normalcy. My position remains that we, as a forward-looking community, need to be ready to capitalize on our post-pandemic future through the groundwork we have laid over the last few years.
In my State of the Town address last year, I talked about change, and what that means for us as a community. I mentioned that change is both hard and inevitable, but it’s how we decide to address it that will define us. Who could have guessed how prescient those comments would prove to be, and the magnitude of the change that would be thrust upon us just a few months later? Remote work, remote school, Zoom meetings, social distancing, masking up, business shutdowns, stay at home orders, curbside pickup, online ordering, online everything.
I believe wholeheartedly that how we responded to these sudden changes absolutely defined our community. If we weren’t sure who we were then, we certainly are now. Resilient. Compassionate. Innovative. Resourceful. Adaptive. Selfless.
Many experts believe that COVID accelerated innovation in a number of areas by ten years, which we have all personally experienced in some way. We now have the opportunity to harness this collective spirit of innovation to work towards reimagining a new future for our downtown -- one that reflects the lifestyle and business landscape changes brought on by COVID, in collaboration with Streetworks -- with the following key objectives in mind:
Expand and diversify our tax base in order to provide the amenities and services we deserve, upgrade our aging infrastructure, and reduce our over-reliance on residential property taxes
Create opportunities to increase downtown daily and evening foot traffic by expanding downtown residential living and commercial office space, providing the “walking wallets” that will enable our businesses to thrive
Build on the success of Open Quimby by creating additional open spaces and public gathering spots
Diversify our housing stock by providing housing opportunities for newcomers and downsizers
Identify flexible, post-COVID parking solutions for commuters, downtown residents, employees, and shoppers
Integrate arts and culture into our downtown fabric
Create and implement a streetscape improvement plan which includes sidewalks, lighting, signage, and landscaping
Ensure the Lord & Taylor site is integrated as a critical component into our overall downtown plan.
We are incredibly fortunate to have this significant opportunity right in front of us, and it’s ours to seize. With the retail environment permanently altered, the competition from other towns, and the lasting change brought about by this pandemic, I truly believe we cannot afford to do nothing.
In addition to this potentially transformational opportunity, our work will also focus on the following priorities:
1. Implement a Short-Term, Post-Pandemic Downtown Economic Recovery Plan, Beginning April 1
Enhance Open Quimby aesthetically and with expanded programming to draw downtown visitors
Memorialize expanded outdoor dining
Invest in beautifying parklets and outdoor spaces
Continue DWC’s support of online shopping portal Beyond Main
2. Continue to Prioritize Resident Safety and Security
Continue to focus and expand on community policing under the leadership of WPD Chief Battiloro
Attain police department accreditation for the first time in Town history on our way to becoming a preeminent police department in the state
3. Further Town Hall Culture of Innovation and Service
Empower critical new hires with greater decision making authority and a “get to yes” mindset
Launch a new, user-friendly website, as well as enhanced information and technology capabilities
4. Expand Parks and Recreation Opportunities
Finalize Edison School athletic complex proposal in collaboration with BOE and anticipated public input
Continue progress on Brightwood park enhancements in collaboration with Friends of Brightwood
Improve maintenance in Tamaques Park to include bathrooms, cabins, water fountains and trails, as well as new rain garden
Expand sensory garden and landscaping at Mindowaskin Park
Prioritize proactive park maintenance with DPW and assess staffing levels accordingly
5. Prioritize Quality of Life Issues
Initiate long range capital planning efforts to increase investment in infrastructure and accelerate improvement in sewers, roads, and drainage, always prioritizing sustainability and making green choices wherever possible
Continue to fight for better service and peak one-seat ride on the RVL
Finalize circulation and traffic management recommendations by March to inform future development
Aspire to attain Sustainable Jersey Gold Certification, building upon Green Team’s first-ever certification
In closing, I look forward to the days when we return to in-person Council meetings and the normalcy that they signify. As challenging as 2020 was for all of us, I hope we carry the positive lessons of the pandemic with us once that normalcy returns, which include prioritizing family, community, service, and health.
I will continue to ask that you commit yourself to remaining engaged and informed, and to proactively stay on top of the information we share. Your input will be critical as we work together towards reimagining the future of our downtown.
I also ask that you continue holding us accountable for delivering on our commitments, and once again approach this year with an open mind and a heart full of gratitude for being fortunate enough to live in this great community. This great Town of Westfield has been in existence long before any of us, and it will be here long after we’re gone. Our task is simply to leave it better than how we found it.
It remains a privilege to be your mayor. God bless our great community and country. Happy New Year! We can’t wait to get to work!