Tim Lizura, the former president and chief operating officer of the state Economic Development Authority, spoke in late April at the groundbreaking for a new 156-unit apartment building on the Camden waterfront. — Photo by Avi Steinhardt/Courtesy: Camden County
By Joshua Burd
Professionally speaking, Tim Lizura grew up at the Economic Development Authority.
After all, he has spent more than two decades and the vast majority of his career at the independent state agency, where he has become a fixture and a critical player in New Jersey’s commercial real estate sector.
That made it all the more difficult as he began to consider whether it was time to move on.
“I think the EDA has been an extraordinary place,” Lizura said. “And it’s one of those jobs where it’s hard to leave because it’s a lot of fun: It’s a stimulating job, it’s policy, it’s transactional, it’s got some of the best people I’ve ever met working there.
“So it was never an easy decision when I thought about whether to leave. But at some point, you have to make a decision.”
Lizura did exactly that in mid-June, announcing to staff members that he was stepping down in July as the EDA’s president and chief operating officer. The news rippled through the state’s development community, even among those who began to speculate that he would leave the organization at some point.
“Tim is one of the rare public servants who stayed in government for a prolonged period of time despite stellar qualifications that could have easily led to a more lucrative private-sector position,” said Ted Zangari, who co-chairs the real estate department at the law firm Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. “But he was genuinely and deeply committed to the cause of rebuilding our cities and maintaining our state’s competitiveness, so he stayed at great personal sacrifice.”
In an interview in late June, Lizura said he still had not decided on his next job. But he said there was “a convergence of issues” that made it the right time to step aside after 22 years at the authority. Aside from recently turning 50, he has reached the 25-year mark in public service, an important milestone for pension benefits.
He added that the market is strong, providing an opportunity for him to “make a difference in a different organization,” much like he and his colleagues have done at the EDA. Look no further than cities like New Brunswick, Camden, Newark and others, where the authority’s development activities, incentive programs and other tools have served as an important catalyst.
“I still want to be impactful,” he said. “The things that have made me the most proud is where we’ve been able to turn around communities and really help people. And I want to continue to be able to do that.”
Lizura, whose last day at the EDA was July 12, also exits at a time of growing scrutiny and criticism of those economic development incentives, including the former Urban Transit Hub program and the current Grow New Jersey program, which are awarded to companies that make new investments and create or preserve jobs in the state. Lizura said he has never personalized the opposition, evoking an analogy he has used in the past: “The Legislature and governor call the plays — we just run them.”
Critics tend to forget that the policies were born out of the Great Recession and “really focused on driving investment and jobs to our distressed cities,” he said. That “will eventually help New Jersey as a whole” by allowing those municipalities to become less reliant on state aid.
That’s not to say that Lizura is opposed to refining the programs, a prospect that has become increasingly likely since Gov. Phil Murphy took office in January.
“Like everything else, times change,” he said. “And we’re not in the Great Recession anymore and it’s completely appropriate that the program be relooked at and reformatted and tailored to whatever this governor and the Legislature want to do for the next five years or 10 years.”
Lizura joined the EDA in 1996 after about four years with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. At the time, he was pursuing an MBA in finance and real estate at Rutgers University, a degree that he felt would dovetail with his new job as an analyst in the EDA’s real estate development group.
“I think I had a nice background going in, but you never really learn the industry of real estate development until you do it,” said Lizura, who grew up in Piscataway. “So it was coming in on the ground floor … keeping track of project costs, keeping track of rents, keeping track of project expenses and learning the ins and outs of how to do development, how to do design, how to do construction management and the whole gamut.”
At that time, the EDA looked considerably different from what it is today. Lizura said the authority had around 100 employees, roughly half of its headcount of recent years. There were no significant incentive or technology platforms like the ones that are now synonymous with the organization. Instead, its primary business lines were loans and bonds, while the organization had a smattering of industrial park development.
One key factor was the interest rate environment at the time, he said. When rates in the market were around 7 or 8 percent, the EDA’s tax-exempt bond and loan programs looked considerably more attractive to borrowers and worth the effort of dealing with government bureaucracy.
But Lizura spent about a decade climbing the ranks of the authority’s real estate department, rising to a director position and overseeing a portfolio of about 6 million square feet. That included ground-up construction, highlighted by the 300,000-square-foot incubator and laboratory complex in North Brunswick known as the Technology Centre of New Jersey.
Lizura recalled that the property, a former Johnson & Johnson research campus, was “probably one of the original white elephants” in New Jersey real estate before the EDA acquired and redeveloped it.
“J&J was leaving its North Brunswick campus, and what are you going to do with it? It’s 50 acres of fairly antiquated laboratory facilities,” he said. “But we turned that into what it is today, which is the flagship for life sciences in New Jersey.”
By 2006, the experience had prepared him to take a job with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as the director of the World Trade Center redevelopment. The position spanned everything from the initial five-page conceptual agreement to the full financial close of the massive rebuilding project, he said, with stakeholders including Silverstein Properties, Westfield Corp. and state and city officials in New York.
To be sure, Lizura spent the next two years helping to lay the groundwork for the development that would continue through the next decade. Then he found himself at “the pivotal moment of what I wanted to do next.”
“It was a pretty monumental task and it was one of the proverbial forks in the road,” Lizura said. He was fortunate to have plenty of options, he recalled, “but I wanted to really go and have a different conversation.”
“The World Trade Center was project management — it might’ve been the largest project management job in the world at the time, but it was still project management,” he said. “I wanted to be able to take that and parlay it into, really, a C-suite conversation to go to the next level in running an organization, not just running a project.”
His decision became easier in 2008 when he received a call from the late Caren Franzini, the longtime chief executive of the EDA, who told him the authority was reorganizing and creating a new senior position. The job would provide him with the new experience he was seeking, he said, while offering a significantly shorter commute from Upper Freehold.
“They really and truly are different conversations and it’s hard to explain that until you do it,” Lizura said. “So I’m glad that I did it, because it really did give me the visibility to everything.”
So began his second stint with the EDA, where he became a senior vice president who oversaw finance, development and incentives. In 2012, Lizura was promoted to president and chief operating officer as part of the two-person team that succeeded Franzini, who stepped down after 18 years at the helm of the EDA. Michele Brown became the first of three new CEOs that Lizura would serve alongside over the next five and a half years, remaining a valuable source of consistency to the state’s real estate community.
In the last 10 years, the EDA became most closely associated with the high-profile incentives that have spurred billions of dollars’ worth of investment and development in some of New Jersey’s most distressed areas. The authority approved $8 billion worth of conditional tax credit awards under Gov. Chris Christie, who was in office from 2010 to early 2018, a pace that has drawn criticism from opponents of the policies, but has indisputably helped transform cities around the state.
“Tim has been an extraordinary partner in almost any significant urban redevelopment that’s happened in New Jersey and, specifically, in New Brunswick,” said Christopher Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corp. “He’s been a hands-on partner in most likely half a billion dollars’ worth of mixed-use, complicated public-private partnerships that we’ve put together.
“So I’ll miss Tim as a partner. So many of the projects that we did in New Brunswick served as a laboratory for new ideas coming out of the EDA.”
Lizura said the EDA’s work in Camden and Newark is “especially near and dear to my heart.” Camden was home to one of his first developments with the EDA. And he recalls going to school in Newark for both his undergraduate degree and his MBA, both at Rutgers, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and seeing reminders of how much the city had struggled.
Specifically, he pointed to the hulking steel frame of the failed Renaissance Mall project on Broad Street, just north of City Hall, which stood incomplete for several years before ultimately being torn down to make way for the Prudential Center and a new hotel.
“You drive by that and I say to myself, ‘How does that happen?’ ” Lizura said. “How does somebody start a project and not have enough money to finish it and get to a place where you’ve got this rusting steel sitting in the state’s largest city — on Broad Street?”
So “to go from that to where we are today” is a point of pride for Lizura, who cited projects such as Prudential Financial’s 740,000-square-foot, 20-story tower, which the EDA supported with a $211 million Urban Transit Hub tax credit. That paved the way for additional projects nearby, such as the mixed-use restoration of the historic Hahne & Co. building, which the EDA also supported.
He was quick to point out that successful urban renewal “starts with good leadership at the local level,” crediting former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and current Mayor Ras Baraka, along with former Camden Mayor Dana Redd. Good leaders “allow developers and companies to be comfortable, to invest in the communities,” he said, also praising longtime New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill and private-sector leaders such as Paladino.
Lizura said he was also proud of the EDA’s handling of more than $400 million in federal funds tied to the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, starting around 2013.
“That was a game-changing moment, where we probably went from 160 people to 200 people in two or three months. It was a big effort,” Lizura said, later adding: “We managed all of it with great fiduciary responsibility and were really impactful. Not an easy task, though. Given the federal rules around it, it’s next to miraculous.”
Brown, the authority’s CEO from fall 2012 to early 2015, said Lizura “was a great partner at a very consequential time for the authority,” given the scope of its work. That included the Sandy recovery programs and the implementation of the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, a law that overhauled the state’s incentive programs to create the system that is in place today.
“He had a deep reserve of knowledge of the operations of the agency, was well-liked and respected by the staff and the business community and he was an incredible resource to me,” Brown said. “He will be a great success in his next endeavor, and whoever is lucky enough to recruit him will be fortunate indeed.”
For all of the high-profile work of the EDA, Lizura said its impact on the state’s technology industry is far less heralded. The authority has aggregated a host of different functions that other states often spread across separate agencies, so “sometimes things get lost” when it comes to life sciences and startups.
That has led to not only the Technology Centre of New Jersey in North Brunswick, which he argues “is one of the region’s best life science incubator facilities and programs,” but also EDA investments in venture funds that support tech firms. Other critical EDA programs include its Angel Investor Tax Credit Program and the Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer, which allows smaller tech firms to sell a percentage of net operating losses and research and development tax credits to unrelated, profitable companies.
“I don’t know if the EDA gets enough credit for what is really a very, very fine technology development and life sciences team led by Kathleen Coviello,” Lizura said. That said, “I think you’re going to see, in this administration, more visibility into our support of the technology industry.”
That will be part of the focus for CEO Tim Sullivan, who was appointed by Murphy and installed at the EDA earlier this year. In an email to staffers last month, Lizura said was leaving the EDA “in the capable hands” of Sullivan and the authority’s senior leadership team, adding: “I know I will continue to hear great things about you and what the EDA is doing to grow New Jersey’s economy.”
It was a recurring theme during the interview with Lizura, who heaped praise on the authority’s staff and said that “they should get most of the credit” for its success. He also paid tribute to Franzini and the late Al Koeppe, the longtime New Jersey business leader and EDA board chairman, who died less than two months apart in late 2016 and early 2017.
Lizura called both “amazing individuals” who have “no equals.”
“Both taken too early,” he said. “I wish I actually paid even more attention. But they were just great folks and I miss them.”
They are undoubtedly part of more than two decades of memories that Lizura will carry with him from the EDA. To be sure, he said as part of his farewell that it was bittersweet to leave an organization that he has seen “become a family” over the past 22 years.
“The thing I’m most proud about in my 27 years of public service is that every place I’ve worked, I’ve developed lifelong friends,” Lizura said, adding that “projects come and go” and are all inherently challenging, as they have been throughout his career.
“All of them have been good projects, but it’s the relationships that you make along the way that I think really last.”
A ripple effect
Prudential Financial’s 20-story, gleaming glass office building altered the Newark skyline when it opened in 2015, but Lizura believes the project’s impact is still underrated.
He points to the fact that Prudential had been eyeing other possible locations in the city as it mulled its options for the 740,000-square-foot tower. But Lizura and Franzini persisted in trying to persuade the company to pick a site on Broad Street, just south of New Street and west of Military Park.
When the insurance giant ultimately chose that location, Lizura said it rippled through the neighborhood.
“I think they recognized that was the linchpin to connecting the university district to the downtown,” Lizura said. “And for years and years, we were trying to do that with Prudential’s investment and basically the completion of that block. That allowed the Hahne’s building to be viable in the redevelopment.”
He also pointed to the ensuing rehabilitation of Military Park and the renovation of the historic New Jersey Bell tower that is now underway just north of the Hahne’s building, along with other investments farther up Broad Street.
“That entire area of the city is completely different than it was even five years ago, seven years ago,” Lizura said. “That’s how cities really reinvent themselves.”