Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac is pictured at the future site of Station Village at Avenel, one of several projects in the township’s development pipeline. — Photo by Mary Iuvone for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
With a crowd of more than 400 assembled inside a hotel ballroom, Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac stepped to the podium in late January to deliver his 11th annual state of the township address as the leader of New Jersey’s sixth-largest municipality.
The dominant theme of the day was exactly what it had been for the past decade.
“Our main focus of 2017 will once again be economic development,” McCormac said during the nearly 50-minute address. “Many mayors have to worry about the day-to-day delivery of programs and services in their towns, but I certainly don’t and that allows us to really focus on establishing our vision for Woodbridge Township.”
It was far more than bravado from a popular mayor — and he has the track record to prove it.
Since taking office in late 2006, McCormac has emerged as one of the most development-friendly and pro-business mayors in all of New Jersey. He and his economic development team can boast a record that includes two new power plants, millions of square feet of warehouse space and dozens of new retailers, banks and eateries that have opened during that time.
Of course, McCormac has plenty to work with. With 100,000 residents, the 25-square-mile town has 10 distinct sections with a range of settings: remote industrial parks, downtowns served by major rail lines, highway retail corridors and clusters of hotels and office space.
And there’s one key attribute that makes it all work.
“We’re at the crossroads of New Jersey,” McCormac said, noting that the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway intersect in Woodbridge. Not to mention a host of other major highways: routes 1, 9 and 35, among others, along with Interstate 287 and Route 440.
But the mayor, a Democrat now in his third full term, and his team have taken full advantage of the township’s prized location and rich infrastructure, and they’ve been aggressive in using incentives to push projects to the finish line. Take their use of payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs: Since 2007, the municipality has agreed to more than a dozen 30-year PILOTs with commercial developers, who receive a 10 to 15 percent discount from what their property taxes would typically be if they were based on the project site’s assessed value.
The deals will create hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue in the decades to come.
“We’re not afraid of them,” McCormac said of PILOTs, a tool that has some detractors. “The way I look at it, if nothing happens, you get nothing. And if you give somebody a 20 percent discount and they pay 80 percent of the taxes, it’s still 80 percent — not zero.”
The township is staying proactive as it looks toward its next major goal: revitalizing two of its neighborhoods with mixed-use, transit-oriented development. Last year, Atlantic Realty Development Corp. broke ground in the town’s Avenel section at the former site of an abandoned, 27-acre industrial complex. In its place will be a $50 million project that will create 500 apartments, 25,000 square feet of retail space and a 10,000-square-foot arts center — just steps from an NJ Transit station.
“That’s going to transform a whole section of town,” McCormac said. “It’s really going to put Avenel on the map.”
Township officials also have their sights set on mixed-use in Woodbridge’s main downtown district, which is also home to a train station. To make that happen, they have identified 12 redevelopment zones, along with a developer for each one.
“We’re talking to people now about what they think they can accomplish,” McCormac said. “And then we’ll match that up with our vision and see what we do.”
Economic development in Woodbridge has followed a clear path over the past decade, and township officials have kept their collective eye on the market at every step along the way.
McCormac, the township’s former chief financial officer and a former state treasurer, was first elected in late 2006 to fill the unexpired term of his predecessor. He recalls that his staff was “focused hard” in the early months on warehouse projects and attracting what would become an $845 million, 28-acre power plant project by Competitive Power Ventures.
At the time, he said, Woodbridge was among 20 towns competing for three new power plants that state regulators had approved, so it made sense to be aggressive in offering a 30-year, $115 million PILOT agreement. Not to mention that the project would clean up a remote but heavily contaminated site, an abandoned chemical plant in the town’s Keasbey section.
It turned out to be the largest PILOT that the township has offered to date, calling for annual payments that start at $2.5 million and rise to more than $4 million over time.
“The numbers that they got on all of their expenses enabled them to propose certain rates,” McCormac said. “The fact that they got a bigger discount from us made them more competitive.”
Within about six years, Woodbridge had plenty to show for its efforts to attract commercial projects. Not only had it been picked for the new power plant — which became operational in spring 2016 — but it secured commitments for a series of large Prologis warehouses, a Preferred Freezer facility and an Amazon fulfillment center.
Landing those projects was key, McCormac said, because it kept the town’s pipeline filled while the multifamily residential sector was lagging. And it allowed the township to bide its time for when the market began to shift.
“Nobody was building, but we put ourselves in place,” McCormac said. “We named redevelopment areas up and down Route 1, other highways, and we got ready for the day when the market would turn. And when the market turned, we had a head start.
“Now we’re starting to see the benefit of all of that.”
For all of his administration’s early success, even McCormac admits that “we didn’t start anything from scratch — we didn’t bring the first warehouse, we didn’t bring the first power plant.” But with a team that includes Caroline Ehrlich, his chief of staff, and Marta Lefsky, the town’s director of planning and development, one thing was certain:
“We made ourselves business-friendly from the very beginning.”
Case in point: He recalls giving as many as 50 tours to developers, attorneys, brokers and others after he came into office to explain which sites were available and which of the town’s more “decrepit areas” were due for a makeover. McCormac also established the township’s technical review committee in his first year in office, which has helped streamline the entitlement process.
“You used to have to come to Woodbridge and go to a planning board, where you first met everybody and you go through multiple meetings,” he said. “And you’re sitting there arguing with people over where the dumpster is located or how many watts the lights are.”
“It was a senseless waste of people’s time, so we set up the TRC, and now you come in weeks before your hearing and you sit down with your professionals and our professionals at a conference table. You hash everything out and then you go to the board, and you’re only talking about the actual variances.
“We’ve had multimillion-dollar projects get through the board in 30 minutes, where it used to take five or six hearings.”
The response from the business community has been clear. A conference hosted by the Woodbridge Economic Development Corp. drew hundreds last fall, while McCormac’s annual state of the township address has become the can’t-miss event for the local chamber of commerce and developers.
McCormac, in fact, recalls giving his first address in 2007 at a local banquet hall, The Forge, to a group of about 100. It has since grown to a full-fledged crowd, much like the one that packed into the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel on Jan. 31.
Among the highlights in this year’s address was McCormac proclaiming, “The Avenel arts village is no longer a dream, but a reality.” He gave credit to Ehrlich, who “had this vision 10 years ago when we met the prior owners of the site,” adding that a 200-seat performing arts center and a series of amenities will open within two years.
The Station Village at Avenel project will replace what McCormac, unabashedly, once called “the ugliest building in Woodbridge Township” — a long-abandoned former General Dynamics plant that left contamination across a 27-acre site. More than any other project in town, he said, it required “a big, big educational process to convince people that residential made the most sense there” because it would require a cleanup of the highest possible standard.
That process included eight public meetings over two years, followed by the downturn, before giving way to the long-awaited demolition of the factory in 2015.
The Atlantic Realty Development project has already had a ripple effect, McCormac said. He pointed to the recent renovations made by the owner of the Avenel Pharmacy down the street and the decision by Wawa to open about a mile away on Route 1 and 9.
“All of these things on Route 1 and all of these things in downtown Avenel are happening because 500 walking wallets are coming to town,” McCormac said. “That’s the same thing we want to happen downtown.”
He said the downtown already has “some really nice stores and some really nice restaurants (but) we just don’t have enough and there are still some places that I’d rather see improved.”
And he pulls no punches about the need to do so, noting that, “if we don’t do it, we’re going to be a ghost town” and neighboring towns “will eat our lunch.”
Among the 12 redevelopment zones in downtown Woodbridge, local officials have engaged savvy developers such as Prism Capital Partners. So it would seem that the township is in fact on the right track, with the right approach.
“Certainly, in five years it will look completely different,” McCormac said. “And hopefully you start noticing things happening in the next 12 months.”