For years, there’s been a gap between Verona’s municipal government and its business community. Steve Neale is working to bridge it, and in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Neale, who joined the town workforce in 2007 with a grab-bag of communications and recreation responsibilities, now holds the title of director of administration and economic development. But a more apt one might be “the guy who’s willing to try.”
To that end, he’s brokered a fresh start for the Verona Chamber of Commerce, which will be unveiled soon. He’s bringing the Parkmobile parking app used in Montclair and elsewhere to Verona, so shoppers and restaurant goers won’t have to scramble for quarters. He’s putting information on all of the commercial space in town into a database so that would-be entrepreneurs can quickly see what a property is zoned for and what permitting might be needed to make their business a reality. In the past, business owners have faced frustrating opening delays and higher than expected costs because the information wasn’t readily available. Neale also wants to use the database to make vacant storefronts available for pop-up shops, short-term sales locations that are now common in cities all over the country. He’s made sure that there are ceremonies to mark both new businesses and business milestones.
“A lot of these aren’t new ideas,” says Neale, “but they are new to Verona.”
As he works on economic development, Neale is keenly aware of two realities: First, that business in Verona is not limited to the storefronts you see on Bloomfield, Pompton or Grove avenues; and, second, that it’s both important and possible to make Verona’s new economic development environmentally friendly. The chamber will now fully embrace home-based and service businesses, in addition to its traditional mix of retailers and restaurants. On the environmental front, Neale is also chairman of Sustainable Verona, a statewide effort to improve the quality of life in New Jersey towns by making them more “green”. Neale had a hand in the Verona Mayor’s Wellness Campaign last summer, which teamed up with Verona Yoga to offer free yoga classes outside in Verona Park.
Economic development, sustainable and otherwise, is definitely a work in progress and it is not without its hiccups. The annual Green Fair, which includes Verona’s green businesses, was cancelled this past weekend by bad weather. And last night the Verona Town Council approved a measure to restrict pickups of commercial garbage, despite statements of concern by two business owners. Councilman Jack McEvoy, who voted against the measure along with Councilman Ted Giblin, openly wondered about its impact on Verona’s stated goal of appearing to be more business friendly. McEvoy, on the far left in the photo below, has been working with Neale on the modernization of the Verona Chamber of Commerce.
Neale has been working with PSEG to make town buildings more energy efficient through cutting-edge lighting and improved insulation, and now wants to bring its Energy $aver program to Verona’s businesses. The program, which is also known as Direct Install, can give business owners a free on-site energy audit and recommend energy efficiency upgrades–complete with a detailed estimate of what the work would cost. PSE&G pays for all of the upfront costs and, when the work is done, Verona business owners would only need to repay 30% of that, interest free, over 36 months.
There are other partnerships in the works with local colleges and universities, like Montclair State, Caldwell, Rutgers and William Paterson. These would make qualified interns available to Verona businesses for marketing help and other purposes. Neale has also been exploring bringing car- and bike-sharing programs to Verona.
“We’ve got to identify the gaps,” Neale says, “and make an effort to fill them.”