'Lakewood Neighbors' intends to spread good news in township
By STACEY BARCHENGER
Dec. 24, 2017
LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — There was a different kind of selling going on inside Pine Belt Chevrolet's showroom on a recent evening.
The cars had been cleared out and replaced by community, business, religious and political leaders recruiting to build a new coalition to change what some see as a negative public image of the township.
Dubbed Lakewood Neighbors, the campaign launched during a three-hour event Wednesday night at the Route 88 dealership. Its key components include quarterly meetings of coalition members — guests at the launch signed up, and you can too — to discuss and solve problems and a public relations campaign.
"We're going to be our own journalists, to a certain degree," said Norris Clark, managing partner at the marketing firm Princeton Strategic Communications Group. Clark said the Lakewood Resource and Referral Center, a social services nonprofit, hired his firm to help.
A website (www.lakewoodneighbors.org) dedicated to sharing positive stories about Lakewood and the work of the coalition is already active. A social media campaign will be launched. And early recruiting has paid off: More than 50 Ocean County leaders attended the Wednesday event and many pledged membership to the coalition.
The group isn't only seeking good PR for the township and its large Orthodox Jewish community.
It wants to make a change in Lakewood and the region by bringing people together face-to-face to solve social and civic problems, leaders said. That's where the quarterly meetings come in.
Improving Lakewood's infrastructure emerged as a top priority.
Mayor Ray Coles, a founding member of the coalition, is intimately familiar with the township's challenges. He expected infrastructure would be the coalition's primary focus at its first meeting in 2018.
Lakewood's population has expanded in recent years, climbing to more than 100,000 and making it the largest township in Ocean County.
That growth has led to an inundation of complaints of traffic jams and strapped the public schools, which are bound to provide some funding for private school students. More than 30,000 children attend private schools or yeshivas in the township, while only about 6,000 attend public schools.
That growth has also led to negativity, according to the coalition's founders. They cited news reports and anti-Semitic social media comments as fanning the flames.
"The perception inside versus outside is very different," Coles said. "We need to see where that disconnect is. That's the thrust of this."
The growing Orthodox population has faced challenges as it spreads beyond Lakewood's borders to adjacent towns. State and federal authorities are investigating Jackson, probing whether it discriminated against Orthodox Jews on recent land-use issues.
Jackson Mayor Michael Reina on Wednesday pledged his support for the coalition, as did Hollis R. Towns, regional vice president of news for the Gannett New Jersey group and executive editor of the Asbury Park Press.
There's a long road ahead, leaders acknowledge, but they hope face-to-face conversations will change perceptions.
"It will be good if we take advantage of it," said Kotler, who emceed the event. "No one person can change the trajectory of a town, or towns."
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com