SUMMIT, NJ — Summit Mayor Nora Radest has wasted no time in getting her message out to constituents: If you have a concern, large or small, I’m here and I want to hear about it.
The newly-elected Democratic mayor, after capturing 59 percent of the vote in an election with one of the highest turnouts in Union County, wants to carry local enthusiasm into a community-wide dialogue for 2016, a pivotal year for Summit in several respects.
It’s why Radest has announced extensive public office hours — when anyone can pop into Summit City Hall with an issue — along with a monthly “Meet the Mayor” series, where Radest will speak with residents at coffee shops in the city.
“People may stick around, or I may sit there with my laptop and get work done. If people want to come in, great,” said Radest, whose campaign was built on visiting neighborhoods around Summit and meeting their residents. It’s a habit, says Radest, she wants to keep as mayor. “I just want to be out and about. I want people to see me, to come and approach me and talk to me about what’s going on. And if I’m not out and about, I don’t know what’s going on.”
There will be no more door-to-door campaigning, for the time being, but having her finger on Summit’s pulse is a priority for Radest, considering the year’s agenda. For the first time since 2006, the city will be re-examining its Master Plan, a periodical blueprint which will shape Summit for the next 10 years.
It’s not a process Summit’s government wants to go through exclusively at planning board meetings, said Radest. Informal, public discussions, some of them held outdoors, are already in the works for modifying the Master Plan, which has to be done and dusted by November.
“We’ll be hiring a consultant as a planner, to help us go through that process, and we want to take a very broad approach to getting community input,” said Radest. “We would like to look at it in a community forum basis, which means looking at our public living spaces and asking ‘how do we use them?’ What do we want our downtown to look like, what do we want Broad St. to look like? What, if anything, do we want to change?”
A popular topic of discussion will likely be ways in which Summit can maximize its downtown, which has vacancies in a “few of the larger stores,” according to Radest. To that end, Summit Downtown, Inc. has hired a part-time marketer to spread awareness about the available spaces.
Housing in the downtown area, though, is a more complex issue. The city could invest in additional residences across the downtown for seniors, young professionals and empty nesters without adding pressure on the schools, but that would also increase the area’s density.
It’s about striking a balance between new residences and the right level of density, says Radest, and the city needs resident input to figure out what that balance looks like.
As a document that will determine the future of the downtown, the 2016 Master Plan is a way to get people to think about what’s going on in the community — and nothing is better in Summit than the people, added the mayor.
“I don’t have the answers, I never claimed to, but I’m very good at getting people together. We have an enormous amount of talent in this town. That’s probably our best asset, our volunteers. So I’d like to bring together smart people from all kinds of backgrounds,” said Radest. “I’ve said this before: Let’s have a contest of ideas, and let’s let the best idea win.”
Other items on the mayor’s agenda for 2016 include buying a new “Senior Connections” bus, which takes Summit seniors to stores; expanding and renovating the Community Center on Morris Avenue, a private-public partnership which is yet to be fully funded; and working closely with the Summit Board of Education to “support the schools and maintain the excellence that we have,” says Radest, who’s served on the Board and the Summit Educational Foundation.
Another goal for the mayor’s office, in the long term, will be improving Summit’s relationship with Union County, which “I’m not going to say it’s a bad relationship, but I want to make it better,” says Radest.
“I think one of the problems is that the community perceives the county as just looking at Summit as a checkbook,” said Radest, who wants to look into possible grant opportunities with Union County. “One problem is the community doesn’t realize what the county does for us. I think, certainly, one step would be to develop a closer relationship with the freeholders and other county people, to have a more regular and open dialogue about what Summit needs and what Summit’s already getting.”
Like the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, which is universally Democratic, Summit’s government was carried by Democratic candidates in November. Radest is one of three Democratic figures who recently replaced Republicans on council and in the mayor’s seat.
But while technically a Democrat, Radest ran as a Summit citizen more than anything else, she says, which is why, she says, so many people came out and cast their ballots on election day.
“Partisan politics should not play a role in local government. As Fiorello Laguardia said, ‘there’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole,’ and I mean that,” said Radest, who felt rewarded by the high turnout. “It was great. After the election, I was obviously very pleased with the results, but very gratified by the turnout. I mean, 40 percent turnout. The Union County average was 20 percent. I felt grateful to the citizens for listening, and actually voting. It means a lot.”