A new state law calls for providing grants to help New Jersey municipalities fund zoning and economic planning services. The borough of Flemington, whose downtown is pictured above, is benefiting from a similar grant provided by the state Economic Development Authority in 2019 that will help it attract investment under the federal Opportunity Zone program. — Courtesy: Flemington Community Partnership
By Joshua Burd
Business leaders are cheering the passage of a new economic development incentives law in New Jersey, following a two-year battle in Trenton and the added uncertainty of the pandemic.
Yet some stakeholders are pointing to a far less heralded, less contentious piece of the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act as a key tool for spurring new investments around the state. Namely, the law calls for providing grants to help certain municipalities fund zoning and economic planning services, while helping others craft plans to repurpose distressed assets.
The state will make $5 million available for the grants — admittedly, a mere fraction of the multibillion-dollar financial package — but experts say a little bit can go a long way.
“There is an enormous number of municipalities that are very small in terms of budget and population, so in that sense there is a real value,” said Robert Goldsmith, an attorney and co-chair of the redevelopment and land use practice at Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP. And while it’s still unclear as to how the state would allocate the grant funds, he noted that “$35,000 to $75,000 in scores of municipalities can be a real resource” in bringing in outside planners — the kind that can share best practices, shed light on redevelopment laws and identify properties that are ripe for adaptive reuse.
“That can be seed money to get started on a look at what can be done.”
Smaller or midsized municipalities such as Hackensack and Glassboro have famously attracted new investment by committing to a long-term, holistic approach to planning and economic growth. That comes at a cost, given the need to hire consultants who can steer the process and bring their experience from other towns.
Peter Kasabach of New Jersey Future, the smart growth and planning advocacy organization, noted that the state Economic Development Authority would administer the grants under the newly passed legislation. He also hopes the agency could provide the type of guidance that would address two key issues at the local level: Municipalities often don’t have the money to hire the right consultant, he said, or they have trouble justifying the expense.
“It’s not presented in a value-add way,” said Kasabach, the organization’s executive director. “They don’t necessarily understand how to do it and, if you did it well, what you would get out of it.”
What’s more, he said that “planning” is often floated as a vague, general concept, “but it means something different to everybody.” For some communities, that means hiring a land use planner that will simply advise them to make their roads wider or clean up their sidewalks. Others may look to an economic development consultant to help them draw new businesses to their downtown, he said, without trying to fuse the two objectives.
“There are examples of towns that have gone and done a nice job planning, physically, but they didn’t understand the market,” Kasabach said. “They didn’t understand who they would be able to attract or how they were going to attract them.”
It’s why he hopes the much-needed funding will come with a much-needed message.
“We think that EDA may have a better handle on putting together a program that will help towns understand the value of doing the right kind of comprehensive planning, which will then result in a set of strategies that will improve their economic development climate and improve the community,” Kasabach said. Those strategies must also be implementable, he added, “because you want to be able to come up with a list of actions that start moving your town in the right direction.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that the EDA has provided funds for local planning initiatives. In late 2019, the agency awarded $100,000 each to Cumberland County, Hackensack, Flemington, Paterson and Jersey City to help them attract investment under the federal Opportunity Zone program — which provides tax incentives for projects in certain distressed communities.
Flemington, the historic Hunterdon County seat, has since hired global design and professional services firm Stantec to help lead that effort. That process is now underway, as the borough and its consultants look to build a community consensus around the types of development residents would like to see, while also determining what’s possible and economically feasible.
Robin Lapidus, executive director of the Flemington Community Partnership, said having Stantec on board is critical in that regard. And while planning is a daily focus for Flemington’s governing body, she cited the importance of a professional team that is well-versed in economic development trends and can provide “a vision of what’s worked well in other places.”
“It does really require having a thoughtful expert, I believe, who can at least give you some of the parameters in which to think,” Lapidus said, later adding: “(A) municipality may not be able to look outside of its own boundaries to really see the bigger picture and also to see the fantastic innovations that are being done in other places.”
Local officials are focused on several key neighborhoods and properties as they look to promote mixed-use development, local business and cultural programming. Those areas include the downtown and Liberty Village, the 162,000-square-foot retail outlet mall that was once a regional destination but has since become outmoded, which are part of the planning and stakeholder process that Stantec is now spearheading.
The team’s work includes a sweeping analysis of Flemington’s zoning ordinances, design recommendations that consider the future of mobility and housing and the promotion of shovel-ready development sites. And, as Borough Council President Caitlin Giles-McCormick noted, the size of the EDA grant is allowing for a deeper dive than ever before.
“This study that Stantec is doing is building on the previous master plan and previous studies in a way that is much more hopeful that it will actually result in these changes,” Giles-McCormick said, adding that the work dovetails with plans by individual developers and property owners.
“The Opportunity Zone grant put it over the top and it really allows us to pull all of these things together, have a cohesive plan and get everybody on board to move forward.”
To be sure, Kasabach cited the importance of proactive planning by local leaders if only to “be in charge of the process” when a developer comes calling. Goldsmith echoed that sentiment, highlighting the advantage of being prepared when redevelopment is on the table.
“Some municipalities will embrace and welcome that,” Goldsmith said. “Some municipalities are worried about that process and giving undue control or influence to that prospective redeveloper, so they avoid that scenario. This grant program creates a tool for those municipalities that don’t have the resources, haven’t been approached or are reluctant when they are approached to proceed with the prospective development, thinking it would not be properly received or having concern about perception.
“So there is a meaningful niche of municipalities where I think that could be a real catalyst for taking a look at itself, bringing in experts who can assist in that analysis and make things happen.”
It remains to be seen how closely the new grants will reflect past EDA initiatives to provide local planning assistance. John Costello, a senior policy adviser with the authority, said the Opportunity Zone Challenge Program was aimed at helping municipalities not only attract responsible, equitable investments under the federal tax law, but be prepared to do so.
Providing funds to hire the right experts is key, he said, because “you have a lot of great people in these communities who are working to make sure that the blocking and tackling of government is done in a great way.” But he also cited the importance of being flexible in how recipients use the grant, as each community is taking a slightly different approach.
“One of the things we realized is that not one size fits all,” Costello said. “Some communities have different needs than others and … we tried to meet the communities where they are with what they need in terms of funding and support in general from their state government. We want to act as partners to help them move forward with their vision.”