Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac and Camden Mayor Dana Redd — Courtesy: NAIOP New Jersey
By Joshua Burd
As Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac will tell you, a neighborhood can have a 30-year-old, polluted industrial site that has been abandoned for more than a decade — yet local residents still oppose the mere concept of redevelopment.
But it was the appeal of the arts that provided a breakthrough some three years ago at the former General Dynamics complex in the township. With the promise of performance spaces and an arts-themed retail component, local officials managed to gain support for the 500-unit apartment community that is now rising in its place near the Avenel train station.
“We used that whole concept to sell the project,” McCormac said, later adding: “Everybody is talking about the arts — I’m sold on it as a way to get people involved in the community and really help turn it around. People love to see things when it comes to the arts.”
It was one of many concepts and strategies that were touted Wednesday by a group of mayors who are seeing development flourish in their towns. At a forum hosted by NAIOP New Jersey, McCormac and other officials spoke of everything from “eds and meds” and green spaces to state incentives and public safety investments as a means to economic growth.
“It’s ever-changing, but there’s a lot of key factors,” said Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, one of four panelists. “And the key factors are small, but they can’t go unrecognized, because without them, we don’t have the success that we’re experiencing.”
While it’s one thing to be located near a train station, Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson said fiscal stability is as important as any other factor. The second-term mayor said the township had a AA- credit rating as recently as 2012, but was just upgraded to AAA.
It goes back to the town’s focus on “demonstrating competence in terms of what’s happening with the city fiscally,” Jackson said.
“Now when people look at our town, not only do they know that we have certain bones that are good, but … they realize that we’re — we believe — very competently managed and have some more good things to come,” he said.
Wednesday’s panel also included Camden Mayor Dana Redd, whose city has about $750 million in construction underway and a $2 billion pipeline. The health care and education sectors are among the biggest drivers of activity, but she also pointed to private-sector investment such as the new Philadelphia 76ers headquarters and training center and a new office complex planned for the city’s waterfront.
A common thread in many of those projects is making use of state incentives and policy changes.
“Camden is using all of the tools that is available through the state,” Redd said. “Whether it’s the Economic Opportunity Act or the Higher Education Restructuring Act, we pay close attention to trends in state government and look at how we can utilize those tools to transform Camden and make Camden a better place to live, work and raise a family.”
When it comes to financial tools, McCormac and Dougherty highlighted the use of payments in lieu of taxes arrangements in their towns. Woodbridge has about 30 PILOT agreements with developers and land owners, McCormac said, generating about $20 million in revenue annually.
The issue, he said, is that “everyone is afraid of them” because they don’t generate additional tax revenue for school districts. But he countered that towns can use the revenue for expenditures that schools wouldn’t able to fund through the property tax levy, which can only be increased at 2 percent every year under state law.
“For anybody who comes in, we encourage them to think about applying for a PILOT because it’s so beneficial,” McCormac said. “And we can take that money and turn around and dedicate a piece of it to the schools.”
For all that towns can do to attract development, managing that growth can be just as important. Moderator George Sowa, CEO of Greater Trenton, asked the panelists how they manage to do that.
Redd said managing growth includes involving local residents through means such as job placement and construction career training, a program that Camden recently launched. It’s also important to ensure that workforce housing is included as part of an overall development pipeline, she said.
Jackson called it “a wonderful problem to have” for a town to have so much demand from developers that local officials have to turn away certain projects. But he said that’s necessary in order to manage the growth of Montclair and preserve the town’s historic character.
“We’ve got a number of megaprojects that are on our board,” Jackson said. “But some of the ones that I’m most excited about are the repurposing of some of the old buildings on Bloomfield Avenue and just off Bloomfield Avenue for boutique office space and some residential loft-type spaces, which are very, very exciting.
“So I think as we enjoy this growth, it’s very important for our homegrown population … to feel that, while evolution of our community is great and wonderful, there’s not going to be this draconian change and we’re going to see something that we don’t recognize in 15 or 20 years.”
Jackson added that managing growth can mean selecting projects that cater to empty-nesters and senior citizens — such as larger units — to encourage them to stay in town.
Dougherty, meantime, said communicating with residents is as critical as any other step in the development process. Local officials have done that through the years amid a development boom that has been focused on residential but is now turning to commercial, such as the town’s first new office building in decades and a new hotel that is under consideration.
“A lot of people are hot on what’s going on in our community, but the key is to be open and transparent so that the citizens understand what we’re doing and have a say in the process,” Dougherty said. “That’s been our key to success.”