Archive for March, 2015

Trenton is adrift because it operates without a budget

No organization of any size operates without a budget.  The budget serves as the main record of a plan of action.   For most organizations it includes more than just numbers but also a description of initiatives meant to drive the mission forward.  You can NOT find a CEO or Board of Directors of any corporation who would not agree with the above.

In governments, it’s perhaps even more important.  The budget serves as the legal check and balance over the spending of the executive branch. It provides the mechanism by which the legislative branch controls the executive. Because of this budgets, could be said to be a core of our democracy.

Organizations and governments that fail to budget, fail, which brings us to Trenton.

Trenton’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th.  However, in recent memory the city has not operated with an approved budget before March.  Trenton fiscal year 2015 budget was approved today, March 24th.  That’s three quarters of the way through the year.  We’ve already spent three quarters of our money without an approved budget.  The money that has been spent was spent with an approval process that has less rigor than a formal review complete with public input.

Our budget and therefore our city are adrift and what’s worse NO one in the Administration or City Council seems particularly upset about it.

The Law Director explained why it couldn’t be done any sooner.  The City Clerk gave some additional reasons.  Basically they are saying that Trenton MUST always and for all time operate without a budget.   The democratic process will apply to only one quarter of the year.  We will remain adrift.

I can’t accept that and call on The Mayor to fix this problem.

  • We may need to seek new State laws. Surely there would be support for allowing struggling cities to have budgets.  The Clerk suggested that we need to change our type of school system vis a vis the State, well OK, maybe we should.
  • We may need to make guesses about State funding. That’s why they call it a budget.  All budgets bake in uncertainty, I fail to see the difficulty in this.  The Clerk suggested we not be dependent on the State.  Perhaps, but that’s like wishing for world peace.  Meanwhile we can budget with only an estimate of State funding.
  • We may need do things in parallel. The City Clerk told me that we couldn’t start work until an audit that takes six months is complete.  I challenge that notion.  Surely Department Directors can prepare their materials and citizens and Council can review and voice their priorities while that is happening.
  • We may have to start work on the 2016 budget NOW. We have only three months until fiscal year 2016 begins.   I fail to see why the administration and public can’t agree on priorities and contingencies in advance of July 1 so that shortly after the year begins, Council can begin voting.  The voting should be the last and most inconsequential part of the process to paraphrase fellow activist Kevin Moriarty.

Several years ago, during the unfortunate Tony Mack administration, I, along with a small band of fiscally minded citizens, formed a group called Fix Trenton’s Budget.  Among other things, we researched, developed and presented a new budget process to the Administration and City Council called Priority Based Budgeting.  Other cities around the country use it to good effect.   It was heavy on public participation, analytic thinking by Departments and timelines.  We held public budget education forums and even collected budget priorities from the forums and over the Internet.    It went nowhere because the Mack administration and City Council were happy to operate with no real bounds or public input.   Let’s hope that is NOT the attitude of this Mayor.

We have it ready to re-introduce to Trenton should the Mayor ask us.

We hope that this Mayor will help re-install the good government and transparency that comes from operating under an approved budget.  We hope that we can budget not just for the months of April, May and June but that he will consider the other nine months of the year as also being important in moving Trenton forward.

Priority Based Budgeting Process (from 2012)

Letter to the Editor on Trenton’s proposed marketing campaign

Times writer Jenna Pizzi brings voices to the debate over a marketing campaign for Trenton that, for the most part, miss the mark. (“Trenton officials plan $105K marketing campaign to rebrand city to tourists, businesses”, March 21). I would prefer to see this conversation rooted in the broader discussion on how to revitalize our city.  Instead, the article misses several important points on the role of branding vs. marketing and at least one voice that has been discredited in the history of Trenton’s revitalization.

Since my issue is with the use of quotes in the article I’ll review the main ones point by point.

“The mayor was very interested in developing a campaign that rebrands us and allows us to determine what is our own identity,” said King-Viehland. “Now is the time for Trenton to determine what it is.”

No problem with branding as a goal.   One would have thought the Trenton250 plan would have done this.  But it didn’t do a great job.   What we really could use is a branding strategy to evolve our brand identity in advance of a marketing campaign.

Product companies do this in parallel with developing products all the time.  An easy to understand example is Apple with its iMac, iPad and iPod.  Years ago the company decided that it wanted a series of products centered on the “self” that would work together.   They settled on a “look and feel” and naming ahead of delivering the product and spending money on marketing.   The branding drove the development effort long before it drove the marketing campaign.

If that’s what this $105,000 is for then hopefully the contract winners will be working on helping neighborhoods and business district establish sub-brand identities under Trenton’s umbrella brand.  My block is preparing define our own sub-brand right now and a fair question is how it might fit with other similar efforts in the history.  However, from what’s been said, I don’t believe this is the focus of the contract.  Instead the city is jumping straight to spending $30K on creative and $75K on a campaign on targeted support for private events.   Classic cart before horse.
“The problem with Trenton is that it has always been, in my mind, the perception rather than the reality,” Prunetti said. “Their perception is wrong.”

Well Bob, Trenton is among the national leaders in homicides per capita.   We have the second lowest per capita income in the State.  Our tax rate is the highest in the State.  I believe, Mr. Prunetti that our reality is a problem and you are delusional.

I’m from North Carolina whose State motto is “Esse Quam Videri”, which means “To Be Rather than to Seem”   It’s taken from a work by Cicero on the value of having virtue rather than just seeming to.   Mr. Prunetti’s could be  “Seem rather than be”.

And finally we should all realize that Mr. Prunetti not only claimed 15 years ago that an arena, a ballpark and a hotel would form an economic triangle that would revitalize Trenton.   It was a delusion then and just ridiculous now.   Furthermore, the notion that Mr. Prunetti represents businesses that would move here is misguided. He represents businesses that are already in the region. I’d rather hear from a relocation consultant that advises businesses on where to move.  What do these people think of a marketing campaign?

“If you are trying to turn around a negative image it is a tougher sell,” McCarty said. (marketing professor from the College of New Jersey) “That is true with anything in marketing. I do think that Trenton may have some difficulties in this arena, the same way that Atlantic City has and so on. It is not to say it can’t be done.”

I’ll be fair about this quote and say that Mr. McCarty is saying that turn-around marketing is difficult.   His underlying opinion seems to be that a turn-around marketing campaign for Trenton would have a tough time accomplishing a useful goal, but that anything’s possible.

With that I agree.   If we believe Mr. McCarty then we should classify this proposal as risky and unlikely to succeed.  In fact, turn-around campaigns are generally very expensive (think BP spending all that money on the Gulf Shore).  $105,000 is a drop in the bucket and not sufficient for a turn-around campaign.

Darrell Bartholomew, an assistant professor of marketing at Rider University, said he sees Trenton as set apart from other struggling cities like Camden because it has much more to offer in the way of historical attractions, museums, arts and tourism opportunities.

Mr. Bartholomew, is saying that Trenton is special.  That’s what everybody says, but the use of the quote implies that because we think we’re special, we’re not really such a turn-around case as Mr. McCarty thinks.

I’m here to tell Mr. Bartholomew that every city is special in its own mind and that despite all our specialness and I’m including all of the great festivals we produce, that we still aren’t revitalizing.   If he needs some help analyzing the situation I can lead him to some good source material

“In Trenton they have to do something physical. They can’t just go out there and run new ads,” said Roger Brooks, CEO of his own community marketing and tourism firm. “They have to do something that makes Trenton pretty cool.”

Whether that includes showcasing urban development in a particular area, investing in a project to revitalize an area or highlighting the historic assets of a municipality, the community must determine the identity and why people should come visit, work or move to an area, Brooks said.

“The question is really, what do you want to be known for when you grow up?” Brooks said.

Finally a mature, head’s up and clear perspective.  Thank you Jenna for including it.  What he’s saying is that we need to really figure out our brand and perhaps implement policy that supports that notion.

Trenton250 tries to say something about a vision and what we want to be. I think it’s a garbled vision but it’s what Trenton paid a consultant lots of money to develop.  So are we using it?

Trenton First: A Premier Economic and Cultural Center Built on Arts, Industry, and Education

If this is what we’re using for our branding vision then I believe we’ve got trouble.    Very few economies in this country are actually built on arts, industry or education.   There are a few arts communities in the U.S. two of which literally started as artist havens, Santa Fe and New Hope.   It would be a ballsy move to go that direction and I don’t think that’s what the City is thinking of.   Industry left the U.S. for the most part 30 years ago, so I don’t know what that’s all about.   The Education angle is a bit more interesting but it also seems the longest of long shots given that we’re so far down on the education pecking order.

So what are we doing here?

Clearly I don’t support a publicly funded marketing campaign for 2015.   I might support one in the future but only after reading a cogent and believable revitalization plan that has measurable goals, budgets and tactics included.  In the meantime I would really appreciate the media’s help in bring clear thinking voices to bear on the business of revitalization in the City of Trenton


I don’t send Letters to the Editor to papers anymore.   I’ve had bad experiences in the past and besides its more useful in my mind to have the discussion on the Internet.

SoBro in Trenton isn’t such a far off dream

For several years various individuals and groups have played around with the notion that the 300 Block of S. Broad could and should be much more than it is.   It’s a compelling notion.

The block is one of the most trafficked in the city and has some great historic building stock.  It’s part of the Old Mill Hill Historic District and as such is adjacent to the second most prosperous neighborhood in the city (in terms of median income).   It’s near downtown, the train station and the arena so it’s easy to find.  It’s home to the venerable Mill Hill Saloon, the hip and trendy New Trenton Store and Studio and the new Whitaker condo development.  The block has a lot going for it.

However the block struggles.  Half of the retail store fronts are empty.  Foot traffic is light and too much of the foot traffic we do have is up to no good.   Furthermore none of the individuals and groups that have tried have managed to generate sustained momentum past the talking stage.

Can anything make a difference on the 300 block of S. Broad?

It could take just a few investors with common cause to turn the area around.  I’ll be upfront and say that I’m already one of them as the only owner / occupant on the block.   Because of that I’ll take a position on what this common cause should be.

We have plenty of retail and rental space catering to a demographic short on money and not particularly concerned about style.   As has been written many times on this blog, Trenton can’t revitalize its economy on the back of this demographic.  Instead we’ll need to attract childless, young people with disposable income.  That is, the much sought after millennial.  This is exactly the approach HHG is taking in its new Roebling Wire Rope District project just 3 blocks away.

Just four new businesses catering to the millennial market could put us on the right track

Trenton Social owner, TC Nelson, has it right when he proposes to call the portion of S. Broad between the Sun Bank Arena and Market street, SoBro, including the 300 Block of S. Broad.   This branding is a play on well-known SOHO district in New York and conjures up images of trendy clothing shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants catering to young hipsters.   Of the 20 or so retail spaces on the street, three businesses are already going after that group with varying degrees of success.   But success loves company.

If just four new businesses opened in SoBro it could provide the critical mass necessary to turn the area into a destination for millennials throughout the region looking to escape the strip mall and avoid the pricey streets of New Hope.   If a walk from Trenton Social to Mill Hill saloon could include a stop at a gallery, shopping for Trenton made gifts at New Trenton, a coffee and desert and who knows maybe even a comic book, then I’d say we’d have something.  With targeted retail like this, SoBro would become not only a destination to visit but also a place in which to live.   When that happens the virtuous circle of revitalization will have begun.

Some city government “help” could go a long way

Everything is hard in Trenton and for something good like the birth of SoBro to happen we might just need city government to lean forward and help.   When I say help I don’t necessarily mean provide funding.  Instead, it would be nice to think that if an investor group got organized, the city would send a representative with authority to act to come to a meeting and ask “What can we do?”

I’d say there is plenty the city can do.  Keep being aggressive with abandoned property fines and enforcement.  We need to force the derelict owners on the block out.  Help us find a way to keep the streets and sidewalks clean.  Make sure street lighting is maintained.  Be helpful in making the permitting and inspections processes easy

The problem may not be so big that it can’t be solved for modest amounts of money