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Friday, July 17, 2015

PACHA engages Latino business owners' concerns

PACHA members (at table, L. to R.) Nelson Santana, Maritza
Martinez, Flor Gonzalez (chair), and Carlos Ponton.
NOTE: The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that some of those from the 6th Street Block Association who originally pushed for street cams are indeed still with us.

Plainfield's Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs (PACHA) continued its groundbreaking activities with an informal session with Latino business owners at Wednesday evening's regular meeting.

About twenty five business owners, most from downtown, attended and expressed their issues and concerns in a frank, earnest and amiable discussion. Business cards and promotional handouts from the various businesses were available on a table at the rear of the room.

The meeting was conducted by PACHA chairperson Flor Gonzalez, founder and president of the Latin American Coalition. PACHA member Maritza Martinez, owner of Maritza's Boutique and an officer in the SID, graciously provided translation in both Spanish and English of the discussion.

After a brief round of introductions, participants jumped right in with several concerns. Public Safety Director Carl Riley and Economic Development Director Carlos Sanchez were both present and fielded questions from attendees.

The concerns focused on six main areas --


As might be expected, many of the business owners were concerned that the City of Plainfield could do a better job in communicating with its Spanish-speaking residents.

While everyone was appreciative of the efforts by Mayor Mapp's team, which far surpass those of previous administrations, there are still areas that need to be addressed.

One in particular was having more bilingual staff for the 9-1-1 system. Another was more bilingual officers on foot patrol downtown during business hours.

A suggestion was also made that emergency messaging systems the City is using should be broadcast in Spanish as well as English.

Public Safety Director Carl Riley took notes during the discussion and promised to do what he could, but noted that the Police Division is down on active officers. Recruiting bilingual officers is one of his top priorities, he said. He also indicated the PD would look into the suggestion about emergency communications.

Police-Business Community Relations

The communications issues were closely linked to concerns with relations between the police and the business community.

Once again, the need for more truly bilingual officers was stresses. Director Riley pointed out that on his watch, the City has for the first time devised a screening process whereby police recruits who claim to be bilingual are engaged in a structured conversation to demonstrate their facility in both Spanish and English. Though Riley did not say so, there was a slight suggestion that some officers in the past "puffed" their bilingual chops.

Another concern was what may be characterized as a certain gruffness or abruptness by the police toward Latino business people, especially if they find English more difficult for them to communicate in.

I wondered to myself whether there wasn't an opportunity here for the Police Division and the business people to try and boost recruitment among young Latinos. Wouldn't that be an ideal partnership?

Lighting and Security

Concerns were expressed as well about lighting and security issues. Riley was able to report that the street cams -- so long awaited -- have been mounted and will be activated once PSEG has everything hooked up, probably by mid-August.

Riley pointed out that the cams would relay real-time images to a contral center at police headquarters, where officers would monitor them and be able to direct responses to trouble spots as soon as they are spotted.

This system was the dream of leaders of the East 6th Street Block Association more than 15 years ago. It is reassuring to see it will finally be realized, but it is sad to note that some of the original advocates are no longer with us to celebrate the progress.

Drug Dealing

Another concern was drug dealing. Several shopkeepers expressed frustration at how openly some dealers and dealing are. They also expressed the dilemma of one the one hand, being frightened to notify the police because of fears of retaliation and. on the other hand, reluctance to call the police because of unsympathetic reactions when they do call.

Clearly, more work remains to be done on this issue.

Parking Issues

Parking issues were also discussed, including, once again, police and meter maid interactions with the business community.

One thing that was NOT discussed was the complaint I have heard from many shoppers that quite a few shopkeepers park in front of their stores all day long, restricting access to easy parking on the part of shoppers.

Clearly, these issues would benefit from the parking study that was promised by the Administration some time back. What ever happened to that?

(In this vein, I have noticed the disappearance of several parking meters in the downtown shopping area, as well as "No Left Turn" and "Do Not Enter" signs that have gone missing without being replaced.)

C.O.P. Presence

Latly, there were several speakers who implored the city to bring back the satellite station and C.O.P. (Community Oriented Policing) program of several years ago, which it was felt made downtown shoppers feel more secure.

It made me recall the great buzz about the City's acquisition of a Segway capability. Seeing the officers zip up and down the sidewalks head and shoulders above pedestrian traffic was a dramatic visual sight and certainly enhanced a feeling of security and watchfulness in the shopping district.

Director Riley told me we still have the Segways, but no one is currently trained to use them.
Economic Development Director Carlos Sanchez wrapper up with a presentation that highlighted ways in which the City stands ready to help the Latino business community.

He pointed out the advantages of active participation in the SID (Special Improvement District), which works to market our retail districts -- Downtown and South Avenue -- to a wider public, and the advantages of the Urban Enterprise Zone, which include our well-regarded Sign & Facade program.

Sanchez also highlighted opportunities for small business loans and grants and noted that his office was ready to help, urging people to call or stop in.

While PACHA is an advisory group, this meeting clearly indicates that its current panel of volunteers are eager to connect with the business community. The presence of high level staff from the Mapp administration gives an indication of how seriously Mayor Mapp takes the necessity of developing a mutually beneficial working relationship between the City and the business community.

PACHA meets monthly on the third Wednesday at 7:00 PM in City Hall Library. The public is always welcome and has an opportunity to participate in the meeting. City Hall is at Watchung Avenue and East 6th Street. Parking and entry are available in the lot behind the building.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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