A public hearing and vote on the adoption of the ordinance will be held at the Council’s May 13 meeting at 7 p.m. in the municipal complex at 400 Witherspoon Street.
Council members debated the issue at length at the almost five-hour Council meeting Monday night. The discussion and vote on the kiosk took place after 11 p.m., when less than 10 people were left in the audience at the marathon session.
Council President Bernie Miller, Councilman Patrick Simon and Councilman Lance Liverman voted for the proposal. Councilwomen Jenny Crumiller and Heather Howard voted against it. Councilwoman Jo Butler was absent.
Miller, who moved to introduce the ordinance, said the plan to have the Chamber renovate and manage the kiosk at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Nassau Street would help the downtown.
“It has occurred to me that starting about a year ago, culminating in November of last year, all of us spoke about the need to maintain a vibrant downtown,” Miller said. “It is not often that we are presented with the opportunity to help maintain a vibrant downtown. This is the first opportunity that ha come before the Council to do so.”
Simon said he would be on board with approving the agreement if it includes a provision for the town to buy out the Chamber if necessary, which the council and Chamber agreed to. Under the proposed agreement, the Chamber would lease the kiosk for five years, for $1 a year, and sell advertising on a portion of the kiosk. According to the Chamber, the renovation of the kiosk will cost about$20,000. Chamber CEO Peter Crowley estimated Monday night that it would take three years for the Chamber to make back its investment.
“I think if the Chamber takes this on, it is going to be great, good for the city and the public would buy into it. But there has been a lot of public comment opposed to it. I would prefer the lease have the option for Chamber to terminate with some notice and for the town to buy out the Chamber at any point,” Simon said. “If I am wrong, and six months down the road people are not on board, and are more opposed, what option do we have to buy out the Chamber and cover their costs up to a reasonable amount?… I think the town is going to like it, accept it, and in five years, the Council will be happy to have the lease renewed, but if I am wrong, the town should have the option to terminate.”
Crumiller said Anne Reeves, founder of the Arts Council, has been in touch with a group of Princeton High school students who want to maintain the kiosks as a community service project.
“This is not worth introducing advertising on the street scape that isn’t there now,” Crumiller said. “By approving this, we are just confirming the fears of anti-consolidation people who worried about the character of the downtown changing. This is a small step in changing the character of the downtown. I’d urge my colleagues to give this a second thought. Is turning it over to the Chamber really worth this amount of money? We don’t sell advertising on other areas. Is there going to be a new policy that we start selling ads to save money?”
“I still view it as a problem that doesn’t need fixing,” Councilwoman Heather Howard said. “The kiosks are part of what makes the town unique and special, and I fear commercialization. I also feel like the ground has shifted here. There is no revenue sharing with the town. Also, the ordinance says the kiosk is not a public asset. But it is a public asset. I know the Chamber spent a lot of time working on this, but I can’t support it.”
Administrator Bob Bruschi, who supports the plan, said originally that the town would share revenue generated from the advertising on the kiosk, but that was under the original proposal, which included cost sharing by the Chamber and town. The original plan was more expensive because it included electronic message boards, he said. The town will get about 15 square feet of space on the kiosk, public notices will be about 72 square feet of the kiosk, and about 56 square feet will be for advertising if the ordinance is approved, Bruschi said.
Miller expressed concerns about allowing advertising for businesses located outside of Princeton’s border. He asked that the Chamber notify the town if it can’t attract enough advertising from Princeton businesses. Crumiller said about 70 percent of the members of the Chamber are based outside of Princeton.and there is no guarantee advertisers will be downtown businesses.
Crowley said there has been a lot of misinformation about the project, and that is why some people are concerned. (Editor’s note: The Chamber has complained that Planet Princeton stories are inaccurate and expressed concerns about our coverage of the issue.)
“We are proposing an increase in the amount of public space,” Crowley told the Council. “Everyone has spoken about the fact that the kiosks are messy. A number of organizations spoke in favor of the plan, and a number of organizations will speak at the next meeting. We believe when people understand what will happen, and not the misperceptions, they will support it. There will be free and open public postings, and a better upgraded kiosk than what is there today.”
“Funding is needed to fix the kiosk. You cant get around that,” Crowley said. “People are getting caught up on the advertising, but it is not going to generate profits. We have minimized a lot of what was proposed for advertising. We are not trying to take away anything or put up billboards. The design is very muted, and it really focuses on downtown businesses, because that is what makes us…We have no intention of selling ad space to anyone but downtown merchants. The only way we will do it is if we can’t sell to them.”
The few remaining members of the public in the audience who commented on the proposal all opposed it.
“In Princeton everything is about money,” resident Chip Crider said. Crider recalled promises that the newspaper kiosk on Palmer Square would include space for public notices and public information. Now the kiosk is plastered with ads and no public information, he said.
“Someone talked about helping the little people earlier tonight, well, one issue in town that affects the little people is the kiosk,” Crider said. “The kiosk is where someone can find a cat, a ride, or a guitar player. It is messy because no group has assumed ownership of keeping it clean. The question this is really about is, in Princeton, with regards to all public property and all property exposed to public, is it necessary to monetize every square inch?”
Dan Preston said the kiosks are an important part of the public square and their role as a free speech agent should not be mixed up with commercial activities.
“They are a free speech resource open to all, including those without internet or other technology,” he said. “They are an important part of the character of downtown, a completely non-commercial oasis where people can share information. It is worth protecting for that reason alone. Great ideas were proposed tonight about encouraging youth groups or other community groups to improve them.”
Preston said from reading the lease document online, the details seemed vague. He also questioned whether the kiosk should be turned over to a non-profit that does lobbying and noted that the Chamber Facebook “about” page lists part of its mission as “to speak for business with a collective voice on public policy issue affecting businesses in our community.”
Crowley said the Chamber does not conduct lobbying activity. Asked by resident Jim Healy what the affiliation is with the national Chamber, Crowley said there is no tie between the Princeton Chamber and the national group.
Healey added that he liked the suggestion that students or another community group maintain the kiosk.
“Messy is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.