Friday, September 17, 2021

This New Jersey city used Covid relief money to buy thousands of tote bags, and never delivered them

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The $8,000 tote bag plan — part of a $72,530 grant to help jumpstart a downtown economy that has seen multiple store closings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — were to “emblazon a ‘Shop Local, Shop Safe, Shop Westfield’ message on them.” The tote bags were part of a federally-funded Holiday Visitors Center set up in a vacant storefront and staffed by paid “ambassadors” who were hired “to patrol our downtown streets starting in mid-November and continuing every day through Christmas.”

But the grant application for the Downtown Westfield Covid Relief program pledged the distribution of the tote bags in during the 2020 holiday season, and local officials promised to spend the funds by March 31, 2021.

“The canvas bags were never intended to be fully distributed during last year’s holiday season,” said Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation.  “We will continue to distribute them throughout the year including at special events such as Girl’s Night Out, Sweet Sounds Downtown and during this year’s holiday season.”

The tote bags are still in their original cartons.

Other municipalities who received grant money as part of the state-administered Main Street New Jersey COVID-19 Relief 2020 program focused on other ideas.

Bloomfield, Metuchen and Red Bank provided heaters to local restaurants to provide outdoor dining after the weather got colder.  Boonton and Summit provided direct grants to local retail businesses to help them remain open, and Woodbury purchased additional personal protection equipment for retailers.

Westfield used $20,000 to hire a consulting firm to create a retail strategy, and $10,000 to hire “ambassadors to patrol our downtown streets starting in mid-November and continuing every day through Christmas” distributing masks and maps.  They also opened a storefront holiday visitors center to provide free giftwrapping and provided free local delivery services for items purchased from downtown retailers.

Mayor Shelly Brindle called the program “wildly successful.”  She serves as an ex-officio board member of the independent Downtown Westfield Corporation.

“We have heard that numerous merchants are on the brink of closing as a result of lost business due to COVID and that if they don’t have a very successful holiday season, they will be forced to close in early 2021,” the grant proposal said.  “Therefore, we plan to create a special printed map and holiday gift guide to encourage shoppers to shop locally instead of with national online retailers.”

One urban Democratic mayor didn’t agree, calling the tote bag idea “a sad waste of money.”

“These people are really out of touch,” the mayor told the New Jersey Globe.  “We’re dealing with serious problems, like people losing their jobs and their kids going hungry and these elitists think giving away tote bags will somehow save the town.  Give me a break.”

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