I can’t think of any urban city in New Jersey which one would classify as truly “great”. A great city provides the intellectual, creative and financial juice to form new companies that fuel economic growth and the resulting high quality of life.
There are large cities in America that do this like Boston, San Francisco and New York. There are small cities that have done it as well; Raleigh and Austin come to mind.
As we wonder what it will take to make Trenton great again, we’d be foolish to think we could copy any of those cities. After all we live in a unique state at a unique time. But surely the ingredients for greatness are within our reach.
Much has been said about regionalization in New Jersey and how it can help. But let’s be honest, Princeton is a poor comparable for Trenton, Passaic, Irvington and Camden.
The question is what does regionalization mean for Mercer, Essex, Passaic and Camden counties? Does a rising tide raise all ships in those places? Will a regionalized police force lead to lower crime rates and is that a measurably good thing for not only the urban centers but the suburbs as well? What about schools? What about economic development?
My suspicion is “Yes”? Let’s seriously explore being a great county.
The analysis I have read about regionalization points to cost savings from combining operations. This is obviously a good thing. However, best guesses are that this amounts to around a 10% overall savings. This is nothing to sneeze at but given the severe imbalance in property taxes vs. cost of services between a poor city like Trenton and its wealthy neighbors, it may not be worth the risk.
If, on the other hand, we saw an overall reduction in crim, county wide and not just in the urban center, then that kind of improvement would certainly grab a safety conscious suburbanite’s attention.
Schools could benefit too. As it stands, suburbs currently fund not only their own schools but the lion’s share of the cost of urban schools. Those urban schools produce generally poor results for a premium dollar. But what if by integrating schools on a county level we were able to reduce the overall cost of providing a decent education? There are thousands of examples of where this has happened in the USA. If I lived in West Windsor, I’d much rather have a vote on how my money was spent in Trenton than not. And as I’ve said many times, I’m the product of an integrated public urban school that I’d gladly compare to Princeton High.
But the real benefit could come from economic development. Our suburbs struggle to attract ratables while at the same time fight the ugliness and hassle of sprawl. But what if they benefitted from development in urban centers which typically have a surplus of developable land and welcome it? Couldn’t that be a home run? Imagine what would happen if county leaders could, in good conscious, focus their development efforts on cities knowing that the ratables their efforts generate would fund county-wide budgets.
This all sounds good but there is quite a bit of work to do to turn these ideas into real plans for action. The fortunate thing in our favor is that a lot of the work has been done by State regionalization task forces and our current State administration is solidly behind those plans.
What is needed are Mayors and City Councils who are willing to lead their municipalities into a form of government that give up traditional autonomy in favor of a more balanced regional economy. A strong leader in Trenton will need to find and sell the benefits of regionalization not only to the city but to suburbanites as well.
We’ll have to recognize that there is a good bit of well-deserved fear involved in a suburban town throwing in with a city like Trenton. And Trentonians would have to realize that they would no longer call their own shots.
My hope is that at least one Trenton campaign in the 2014 election sets as its centerpiece, mutually beneficial county-wide regionalization. Let’s explore sharing our library, Cadwalader park, our communication center, our schools and our developable land with our neighbors in return for becoming integrated back in to the region’s economy.