BY WENDY OWEN
Toms River, NJ – Embracing the joke that all towns in New Jersey can be identified by an exit on the Garden State Parkway, visible through green window and bumper stickers declaring “Exit 82”, the problem is, the reference is to Seaside Heights, and not Toms River, but people like Jeremy Grunin are looking to change that.
While our neighbor to the east can claim the Jersey Shore beach house, the beach and some famous pizza, Toms River is the year-round home of nearly 100,000 and a growing community of artists.
As Executive Director of the The Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, Jeremy Grunin has spent the past two years developing programs to bring attention to the Downtown Toms River business district. Initiatives like Engage Toms River were created to “encourage every citizen in Toms River to awaken their creativity, individuality, artistic and technical abilities to embed interaction with the arts and culture in our community.”
To that end, the foundation has created the cash prizes given to artists for their winning Engage Toms River Community Mural Project designs, the latest of which is Elizabeth Paseler’s piece portraying a bustling downtown scene which will be unveiled during the Harvest Festival on October 17. As with the Seward Johnson sculpture exhibition this Summer, the murals are predicted to bring visitors to the area.
“That’s a lot of what we’re working on,” says Mr. Grunin. “Toms River is very much a June through August destination spot. How do we attract folks here when it’s not the summer and how do we keep young folks here? That’s why we started the focus on the arts and culture — we figured if we could retain folks here throughout the year, we could build the community.”
“To some extent, Toms River has become a pass through to the shore,” continued Mr. Grunin. “What we saw this summer with the Seward Johnson sculptures, and the mural projects, we’re showing the local business and property owners that there can be traffic and it can be a destination for folks. It’s kind of our goal to reimagine what downtown Toms River can look like.”
One of those goals for Mr. Grunin is to return the Toms River Halloween parade back to preeminence. “We’re partnering with Fire Company Number 1 to bring the Toms River Halloween parade to the number one spot as a cornerstone event for the county.” To that end, the Foundation is hosting the Halloween Parade Challenge, an opportunity for individuals, schools and non-profit organizations in Toms River to create the best parade float with the winner receiving $10,000 check after the parade. The prize included $5,000 for materials, and assistance from the Toms River Artists Community (TRAC). TRAC will receive a $5,000 donation for helping with the project.
In addition to the parade, Mr. Grunin says to keep an eye out for future events. “You might see in the next month, or so, the township coming up with a pretty cool idea for a new strategic plan for Toms River for business development that might have a cultural angle. There may be a resolution on the docket in the next couple of weeks.”
The future looks bright to Mr. Grunin. “I think you’re going to see a lot of things in the next 12—18 months coming to downtown Toms River to revitalize the area and radiate to the rest of Ocean County. The Summer program for next year may be a combination of perhaps sculptures from local artist, Brian Hanlon, and pop-up art to showcase the local folks and what they can do with their own displays and art exhibits. We want to open up people’s eyes as to what is happening here.”
Wanting to get involved more in the community, Gruning in the 2014 Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education Election, but came shy of winning a seat. He has since changed gears, putting his efforts into promoting arts and culture in Toms River.
A dedicated family man, Mr. Grunin will not be running for office any time soon. “I will leave politics for others,” said Mr. Grunin. “I’m more focused on the grass roots perspective, and as Chairman of the Greater Toms River Chamber of Commerce, among other commitments, I’ll leave the politics to others. My wife and three kids are my priority and then, what we can impact as a foundation.”
As a private family philanthropy, The Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation’s stated goal is to “. . . make Toms River the regional template for quality of life and strong economic health through root-cause focused investment in healthcare, education and the arts” that seeks to support organizations with grants that share their vision. More information about the Foundation can be found on their website at JayAndLindaGruninFoundation.org.