Mayor convenes COVID-19 Recovery Task Force
By GWEN OREL
Mayor Sean Spiller has appointed a COVID-19 Recovery Task Force composed of residents and representatives of small businesses and nonprofits, as a kind of think tank to analyze pandemic-related issues in Montclair and come up with solutions.
The task force held its first meeting over Zoom on Nov. 17.
It is co-chaired by Spiller and Montclair residents David Pascrell, an attorney, and Shante Palmer, Montclair State University’s director of government relations.
At the meeting, Spiller said that the breadth of the task force “shows what Montclair strength is all about.” The goal, he said, is to establish some best practices and talk about “opportunities when we go back to the new normal. Many residents are wondering, ‘Why go back to the way things were?’” People are asking about making the town more pedestrian-friendly and having more virtual activities available, he added.
The task force has three subgroups, each of which has its own leader, that will meet independently and bring their findings back to the whole group: a small business group, a community stakeholder group and a nonprofit group.
Raj Amin, founder and managing director of Teem Ventures, is the chair of the small business subcommittee; Ed Remsen, former Montclair mayor, is the chair of the nonprofit committee, and Roger Terry, former deputy chief of police and member of the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, is chair of the community stakeholder committee.
Seven people were present as liaisons, one of whom was Deborah Cornavaca, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Phil Murphy.
No one from the Health Department is on the task force, Spiller told Montclair Local, because not every meeting needs a specific health perspective. However, the task force has liaisons with the Department of Health, which will work with the subcommittees as needed.
In response to the crisis, the Township Council awarded $150,000 in small business grants, gave a $60,000 grant to Toni’s Kitchen to help meet demand, suspended parking fees, deferred property tax payments, began a contact-tracing program administered by the Montclair Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with Essex County, and started a new partnership with Murphy’s office to provide more testing around the holidays.
One task force subcommittee has already begun meeting: the small business group. Jason
Gleason, director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said that this is the time to be proactive and talk about what will happen next year, and post-COVID. “Which ordinance should we be looking at, to strike a balance between public safety and allowing businesses to use sidewalk spaces and storefronts in new and interesting ways?” he said.
Gleason said he appreciates how the task force brings different groups together, which will cut through bureaucracy. “We are getting ideas onto the table for multiple people to see at the same time,” he said.
It has not been easy for businesses. At this time of year, there would normally be a 7-percent vacancy rate downtown; in 2020, that rate is nearly 20 percent, he said. Some of the closures were due to the state shutdown – some businesses allowed to reopen in May and June had lost too much to reopen and decided to pull up stakes.
“The holiday season is tricky. Some retailers and restaurants do up to 50 percent of their sales in November and December. We are rolling into a holiday season with 25-percent capacity,” Gleason said, adding that the cold weather will severely affect outdoor dining.
“Once the dust settles after the holiday, and with a vaccine coming, I think businesses will have to ask themselves, ‘Can I last another 10 months until the holiday season?’ It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
But he said that Montclair’s independently owned small stores can often be more nimble and pivot more quickly than box retailers and chains.
This year’s Small Business Saturday will be held, but with some changes. Santa will not be on Church Street. But, Gleason said, there will still be a BID tent, parking pass giveaways and many businesses putting out their wares on the sidewalks.
Ann Ralosky, senior minister at First Congregational Church, is on the nonprofit subcommittee. COVID-19 is such an unprecedented phenomenon that groups will have to “completely reinvent themselves in some ways,” she said.
First Congregational is holding all of its services remotely, with prerecorded services, and
Zoom services one Sunday a month.
Other nonprofits represented in the group include Toni’s Kitchen, the NAACP and the Partner Global Strategy Group.
It is hard. “From my perspective as a pastor at church, actually being together is one of the more important parts of the experience,” Ralosky said.
Ralosky is interested to see where First Congregational overlaps with other groups. “We’re all about serving in one way or another,” she said. “For some of the groups like Toni’s Kitchen, it really is about folks who are most vulnerable. For the NAACP, I know there are so many issues about how people of color are affected by the pandemic.
“For houses of worship, it really is about how to maintain that connection, that strong sense of faith, not only in a time of great anxiety and uncertainty, but also in a time when we can’t be together. What can we be doing to lift up the most vulnerable and marginalized, and also foster the best quality of life for all citizens of Montclair?”
She listens to Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We’re all learning, none of us have been through this before,” Ralosky said. Next year, with a vaccine, she hopes people can return: “Maybe, miracle of miracles, it will be Easter.”
THE COVID-19 RECOVERY TASK FORCE
Mayor Sean M. Spiller, co-chair
Shante Palmer, co-chair
David Pascrell, co-chair
Lead – Raj Amin (founder/managing director, Teem Ventures)
Lynette Brubaker (founder/CEO, LHB Group)
Jonathan Echeverry (owner, Paper Plane Coffee Co.)
Eliot Mosby (owner, Montclair Diner)
Lead – Ed Remsen (former mayor of Montclair)
Anne Mernin (executive director, Toni’s Kitchen)
Jeff Plaut (partner, Global Strategy Group)
Albert Pelham (president, Montclair NAACP)
Rev. Ann Ralosky (senior minister, First Congregational Church)
Lead – Roger Terry (former Montclair deputy chief of police)
David Placek (managing partner, BDP Holdings, LLC)
Reginald Jenkins Jr. (partner, Chasan, Lamparello, Mallon & Cappuzzo)
Don Zief (former Montclair Third Ward councilman)
Cynthia Walker (founder, S.O.F.I.A.)
Deb Cornavaca (deputy chief of staff for Gov. Phil Murphy)
Ira Karasick and Brian P. Scantlebury (Montclair Township representatives)
Damen Cooper (Montclair Public Schools representative)
Jason Gleason (Montclair Center Business Improvement District)
Zina Floyd (South End) amd Paul Giordano (Upper Montclair), (business district leaders)
Representatives from Rep. Donald Payne’s and Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s offices