Forty Metuchen residents gathered on March 27 for a watch party at Che Pizza, on the Town Plaza, to learn if their small borough had won the 2023 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA).
Cheers erupted when the news was finally revealed via livestream from Boston on the floor of the 2023 Main Street Now conference: Downtown Metuchen is a Great American Main Street.
Immediately, Yolanda VanWettering of AwesomeYo’s Kitchen was handing out festive GAMSA-decorated, chocolate-dipped Oreos that she’d made the night before on a whim — just in case the news was good. “If they didn’t win,” she said, “they could still eat them.” Her next batch will include a new tagline: “Winner.”
Even before the official announcement, resident Jai Patel was enthusiastic either way. “I’m even more proud to be from Metuchen,” he said minutes before the win. “I’m glad I beat the line of all those who want to get into Metuchen.”
Metuchen joins only two other downtowns in New Jersey — Westfield and Montclair — that have won the award since its inception in 1995 by Main Street America.
The Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA), which accepted the award, was established in 2016 to revitalize Metuchen’s Main Street. Since its inception, retail vacancies have dropped from over 20% to single digits even as the pandemic has ravaged downtowns throughout New Jersey and the nation.
Resident Laurie LeFever has watched this transformation firsthand. “This is my 20th year,” she said. “From when I first moved in to today, it’s been a renaissance. When I first moved here in 2003, it was like a toothless woman, empty store after empty store. I cannot believe the revival that happened in, really, a short amount of time.”
Dawn Mackey assumed the role of MDA Executive Director shortly after the nomination was announced in September. She said she was lucky to join the MDA at this important moment. “I continue to be in awe of the remarkable work of this organization, which is bolstered by a dream team of volunteers that are creative, tenacious, and some might even say relentless,” she said. “What they have created in partnership with the merchants, restaurants, property owners, and the borough is remarkable. And the proof is everywhere you look.”
The MDA was recognized for leaning into inclusive events — such as Lunar New Year, the Hispanic Heritage Celebration, Juneteenth, and Pride on the Plaza — while maintaining Metuchen’s historic, small-town character. The recently built Town Plaza has provided the opportunity to host large and unique events such as annual pro wrestling matches, breakdancing exhibitions and pre-prom parties.
Danny and Rachel Cohen, who own Cinnaholic — a vegan bakery on the Town Plaza — took all of this into consideration when choosing their location. “We are thrilled to be located in a downtown that is so lively and diverse,” they said. “When determining where to find a home for our store, we saw a revitalization of this borough and knew that Metuchen is where we would open.”
The GAMSA celebration is only beginning for Metuchen: In June, the MDA will host a Downtown Funhouse party featuring sideshow performances, axe-throwing, music, food and much more.
“Every town has its own personality,” Mackey said. “Some are stately, some are charming. Metuchen is quirky, funky, hip. It’s a wonderful reflection of the people who live here, who open businesses, who cook up an eclectic offering of amazing cuisine. And whether you come for the night or buy a home here, it’s a place you want to be.”