Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A New Push for Economic Development

Image: part of PEDCO roster from 1985

In its 2010 report, the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee singled out economic development “because we believe that developing Plainfield with forethought is crucial to its future.”

The committee’s six well-credentialed members called for establishment of an “economic growth committee” among six recommendations “to achieve a new vitality in the life of the city.”

It’s true that without new ratables coming about through development, taxpayers will be asked to pay more and more each year to run the city. Major developments in recent years – the adaptive re-use of the former Tepper’s department store for 75 apartments, the new governmental office building on the Park-Madison lot – have received tax incentives that reduce income to the city. The 63-condo project known as “The Monarch” is facing slow sales, and the developer is only taxed on the land until units are sold.

The hopeful tone of the CBAC recommendation made this writer think of what has gone before: PEDCO, PRA, OED, PBDC on the city side, PBA, MOPUP, UEZ and SID on the business side, an alphabet soup of organizations that have taken on the challenge of improving revenues through development and business retention. Have they succeeded? Each one has its tale, some getting close to success only to have the governing body turn down a project, while others have come and gone without leaving a mark.

Not much happened in 2006-2009. At the administration’s inception, nearly 20 proposals were on the table and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs added a few more. Hard economic times stalled a lot of development, but some was rejected by land use boards and citizen groups as inappropriate for their locations or not properly conceived.

So here we are at a new juncture. The mayor has four more years and a new cabinet. A visioning study for development is underway. The City Council has a new Economic & Community Development Committee and the CBAC is advocating an Economic Growth Committee comprised of one appointee from each council member, city planning and development officials and several recognized local business organizations.

The CBAC recommends re-establishing contacts with New Jersey developers and setting of economic development targets that include “clearly defined goals and benchmarks,” with quarterly progress reports to the city.

Surely the stage is set for new directions and progress. But it might also be good to think about why, beyond economic factors, the city can point to just one new development project achieved in four years. Were some proposals, like Omnipointe, Netherwood and the East Third/Richmond project, just too ambitious? Were promises made that were unrealistic? At least one proposal was sited on contaminated land that has to undergo brownfields remediation.

A review of failed or stalled proposals could be instructive for future development. Even a bit of history over the past quarter-century could be informative. There is a list of all the proposals floated over the past 10 years that could be updated and shared among all the entities looking into development.

And now let’s decipher some of those acronyms. PEDCO was the Plainfield Economic Development Corporation, with more than 20 members. PRA was the Plainfield Redevelopment Agency, with seven members including the inestimable Chris Onieal, now a resident of Green Village. The Office of Economic Development in City Hall during Mayor Rick Taylor’s tenure included staffer Leslie Anderson, now executive director of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority. The Plainfield Business Development Corporation was where the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams made his local entry into civic service. He went on to serve two mayoral terms.

During his tenure, the role of the deputy city administrator was changed to leadership in economic development. The post was not filled in 2006-2009.

The Plainfield Business Association dated back to the Queen City’s heyday as a retail hub for Central Jersey, before malls wooed consumers away from downtowns. MOPUP, or Merchants of Plainfield United Program, was another advocacy group in effect after the city lost Macy’s as its retail anchor. The Urban Enterprise Zone program permits certified retailers to charge half the state sales tax and revenues are made available for state-approved projects within the zone. It dates back to 1985.

The Special Improvement District is a more recent program in which designated property owners pay extra taxes for improvements in the downtown and South Avenue business districts. It has a manager and a board of directors and works in cooperation with the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce.
There are individuals who have great knowledge about the city's economic history. Among them are Lisa Cohen, owner of the longtime family business Suburban Jewelers; Albert Pittis, manager of the downtown Pittis Estate for decades. Its 45 storefronts now belong to Paramount Assets. Donna Albanese, owner of the family-run Dairy Queen on South Avenue, knows all about that business corridor. Their counsel and insight are ongoing resources for the city.

So you can see, there are and have been many minds at work on economic revitalization. Will this new decade be the charm? Our hopes are up.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Bernice. The one piece that seems to be constantly missing is execution and follow up. I hope that the council will report on the progress of economic development. Currently, Cory Storch, who I believe is leading the economic development committee, has had one reporting period, of which he had nothing to report. That is the real problem.

Here's hoping that all the resources available to Plainfield will be tapped, and the council will keep us updated on a monthly basis.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt that the last year or so has seen a severe economic downturn, putting a drag on economic development. However in the first two to two and a half years of the Mayors first term conditions were never better for development and yet nothing happened. Sometimes leaders are lucky with timing and sometimes dogged hard work can yeild results in any economic climate. It seems we have niether.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cory Storch is not a development person. They should already have a plan in place, an idea or wish list at a minimum of where the city plans to go and when. Again, we have 2 train stations and nothing going on. The Monarch does not count, its a failed endeavor in the wrong place at the wrong time. We need to start at the Norrth Ave train station and branch out from there. Very simple. Now get it done!

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Sobae said...

I agree with the commentator who says that Storch is not a development person. In order to be a developer you have to be conscience-free, but in positive way. Think Robert Moses (yeah, I've read Caro, but I've also read the recent re-evaluations). Either way it doesn't fit Storch; there's certainly no serious boosterism going on there. The problem is there's no one else who seems willing to step up and take it on in any public way. Or is there?

To properly lead Plainfield development it would help to be: African-American, connected to real estate, connected to government, an entrepreneur, young, energetic, and outgoing. Maybe David Brown is exactly who we need, maybe he'll be a dud, or worse. We'll see.

1:56 PM  
Blogger A. Robert said...

Well done Bernice! As a person in the midst of it in the 70's and 80's I saw so many problems created by the people who were supposed to be helping to solve the problems, greed, official misconduct, egocentric behavior, political ambition,nepotism, etc. Going back to teaching and dealing with the students the best way I could, gave me a chance to step back and look at local government and development. Now in retirement I am able to be the person who calls the politicos accountable for their actions and misdeeds.
Keep up the great reporting.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Bernice said...

To 11:36 a.m. Friday: Why don't you repost your reply to Sobae and I will look into it. I honestly don't remember.

12:54 PM  

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