In 2017, Olivia Manning’s life acquired a new purpose when she heard about a meeting to brainstorm ways to revitalize Bernardsville. A marketing professional by trade, Manning knew quite a bit about promoting small businesses and corporations—but a town? It captured her imagination.
The Bernardsville resident had grown up in Basking Ridge, moved to San Diego after college, only to return—as so many of us do—to the place she knew as home to raise a family. Her husband, Tim, opened a store in the center of town, and she loved the community’s picturesque beauty and business environment. However, she realized, the town definitely needed more bustle and energy.
After the meeting, she started her research. “I wanted to know how we could bring more people to our town and why there were cars but not really anyone walking,” she says.
While investigating other thriving downtowns like Somerville, Morristown and Westfield, Manning found two commonalities: They were designated as a special improvement district, which required legislation, or they were designated with Main Street New Jersey, a coordinating program with Main Street America, a national organization that for the past four decades has revitalized over 2,000 commercial districts to build vibrant neighborhoods and thriving economies.
We need to do this, Manning thought.
She got to work, talking about her ideas for submitting an application for Bernardsville as a Main Street community when New Jersey communities were eligible to apply again in 2021 and creating a buzz in the town to generate support. This grassroots effort formed the foundation for what is now Downtown Bernardsville, which was founded in 2018 as a 501(c)4 and in 2020 as a 501(c)3 public charity.
While waiting for the applications to open, Manning and other enthusiastic residents initiated projects and events—like car shows and Small Business Saturdays—to bring the community together. Manning also built relationships with representatives from Main Street America and I connected with people in the state who understood the program to learn how to give Bernardsville a competitive advantage.
Manning is especially proud of the mural that Downtown Bernardsville partnered with the borough to create on the Mount Airy Road Bridge, which was unveiled in May 2021. “The bridge looked run-down, but this made it beautiful,” she says. “The mural was complete before we received designation with Main Street New Jersey.”
Downtown Bernardsville’s years of steady community- and relationship-building gave the town an edge, and it was accepted as a Main Street New Jersey Designated Community in the fall of 2021 and an affiliate of Main Street America in the spring of 2022. “About nine communities in New Jersey applied, and only four were chosen,” Manning says. “This was an important achievement since the program is based on a grassroots, community-driven process that engages residents, business owners and government to come together toward a common goal.”
Downtown Bernardsville is comprised of four committees that focus on revitalization through aesthetics like beautifying areas and adding wayfinding signage, promotion of the town, economic development and building relationships with local organizations. The government has been positively responsive to the organization’s initiatives, Manning says, and the mayor serves on the board of directors.
“Our biggest challenges are the fact that we have a state highway running through the center of our town, which is a safety consideration, and promoting what Downtown Bernardsville is to the community,” she says. “We want people to be on board and join our team.”
Events play a key role in community-building. “We have events on a regular rotation so people can look forward to them with consistency. For example, the annual Trunk-or-Treat and Holiday Parade are always on our calendar so the community can look forward to them year after year.” Something new to look forward to that we are planning is a history walking tour project that will allow people to learn more about Bernardsville’s history,” Manning says.
In addition to community-building, the Downtown Bernardsville team wants to promote Bernardsville as a destination. “The nature is incredible—there are so many trails in the area—and we have a rich history,” she says. “Plus, we also have great shopping, dining, entertainment, events and a hotel right in town. It’s the collection of all these things that makes Bernardsville so charming and fascinating. Bernardsville really does have it all!”
See the latest news and events at downtownbernardsville.org.