Sussex Renaissance

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:55

    SUSSEX-It's been a long time since people have thought of Main Street in Sussex Borough as a bustling downtown hub. But there are a few people who are trying to change that. You might want to call them the new pioneers who are attempting to lead renaissance in a town that has suffered from a questionable reputation of crime as well as wear and tear. Most of these urban pioneers are artists of various sorts who have joined with restaurateurs and shopkeepers looking to introduce an element of culture and leisure to a town so poor it can't afford a police department. Susan Sanford and John Anderson were among the leaders of the new entrepeneurs who saw the possibilities in the old buildings that line Main Street. Seven years ago, they opened the Flying Pig Gallery, featuring original art from the tri-state area. Her clientele is not local, and if it were not for consistent advertising and exposure on the Internet, the Flying Pig along with its neighboring galleries could not survive on foot traffic alone. "We had a fantastic opening and a good beginning, but no momentum followed," said Sanford. That's been the biggest problem - getting people to come to a town that is seen as a Sussex County's low-rent district. Sanford attributes the town's decline to absentee landlords who, she says, are concerned only with collecting rent on their upstairs apartments and have no regard for the historic storefronts below. "People who own big homes in Wantage and might think to come here don't because they believe that the people living in these low-rent apartments cause trouble," she said. "We have never had a problem with kids outside our gallery or people who live here." The town has not had a police department since 1991, but a Neighborhood Watch program is being organized, the Guardian Angels have been invited to start patrols, and the local merchants are cooperating with a watch group of their own. "I think the reputation has improved here, and the town is filled with less transient people," said Harry Nasse, who owns the building at 35 Main St. and operates Art, a custom framing shop and gallery. Like Nasse, Kerr Grabowski of Kerr Design owns her building, which she purchased four years ago at 31 Main St., but looks elsewhere for revenue. Her business of designing silk fabrics relies on selling to other galleries and teaching her special technique of deconstructed screen printing throughout the world. But Kerr remains optimistic about Sussex. "There is an educated, local customer here who is sophisticated," said Grabowski, "I would love to see an amazing change where storefronts are kept decent and people are offered great things. People who start businesses here must have a five-year plan and invest the time." Jeff Parrott, owner of Neil Parrot Real Estate who has been selling real estate in the Sussex-Wantage area for 31 years, echoed Grabowski's sentiment. "The trend of real estate has resonated with sale prices that have increased in the Sussex area," he said. An example of a five-year planner is Frank Bezak of Just Desserts at 49 Main St. Bezak, a former program manager, left his career to join his daughter, Mary, in opening a specialty coffee and dessert shop. "I'm trying to make a difference here because I really believe that this town has so much to offer with its beautiful architecture and buildings," Bezak said. The challenges facing the new generation of business has brought downtown businessmen together in a partnership. The biggest asset that these merchants' spoke of is the Tri-State Actors Theater located on Fountain Square. The theatre is one of the few professional regional equity theaters in New Jersey, meaning that all staff including the actors are paid professionals, and operations are run on a highly skilled level. Paul Meacham, the theater's artistic director, along with his wife Patricia, the managing director, had a vision in 2001 when they approached the borough council asking to rent the historic but abandoned and dilapidated Crescent Theater that the town had been planning to tear down. "We were looking for a home to put our theater company in, and I fell in love with the town and history of the building," said Meacham. The Crescent Theatre had been built in 1917 as a vaudeville venue which later became into a sound theater. The Borough went for the Meachams' proposal and backed the theater, which was reborn as the Tri-State Actor's Theatre in August of 2002. It's not just the newcomers who see change. Laurie Herman of Larie Lea's Fine Jewelry has been in business on Main Street for 17 years and is so impressed with the new life in her old town that she recently stopped renting and purchased her building at 75 Main St. "There has been a dramatic upturn for the better since the sidewalks improved," she said. "We get a bad rap, but people should be encouraged to open a business here.