Managing the Trenton brand

The July 18th edition of Trenton’s Urban Studies group had Alan Mallach as its guest speaker. Mr. Mallach has been studying cities for 40 years and works today as a consultant and author on the subject. He was formerly Trenton’s Economic Development director back in the 90s.

The upshot of Mr Mallach’s comments was that a small city like like Trenton, should have as its objective, to increase the numbers of higher income residents. Increasing downtown residency is an important part of this prescription.

It was refreshing to hear Mr. Mallach talk with a dispassionate view towards assessing the challenges and likely remedies in revitalization. In fact, he pointed out that the efforts of most traditional community activists weren’t really aligned with an ultimate goal of quickly increasing the city’s per capita income.

At a point in the conversation I realized what Alan sounded like. He talked as if he were a brand manager for Trenton.

A brand manager is the quarterback for a product.  She does the analysis to figure out what needs to be done and then calls the plays for manufacturing, distribution and sales. A good brand strategy segments the market in order to more exactly reach customers with targeted products.

Mallach pointed out that this is the opposite of what happens in a city like Trenton. Departments work in silos and therefore are unlikely that to work in some concerted strategy to achieve a marketing objective, like revitalizing a city.

When pressed, Mallach pointed to Baltimore as an example of a city that’s breaking this mould.

My take on this is that a useful reorganization for the city is to treat Trenton as a brand and its various neighborhoods, including downtown as sub-brands. A brand management team, and this should include formal civic associations, should be part of developing strategy for the brand and its sub-brands.

The big implication on our city government organization would be for the Economic Development team to be calling the shots at the behest of a revitalization oriented Mayor. Inspections, public works and even police should be aligning their operations to meet the priorities set by an Economic Development department tasked to build-up Trenton’s neighborhoods.

Good things will happen to Trenton if we can shape our neighborhoods to attract residents who have choices about where to live. This was another Mallach prediction.

However, it doesn’t do any good to crow about how wonderful we are unless we really are wonderful. But if we don’t have product to sell (available housing stock) all the marketing in the world won’t help.

There is much we can do to help ourselves create product that will appeal to the higher income resident

  • One of Mallach’s suggestions is to forego inspections rigor (ala SOHO in the 60s) to enable speedy occupancy of commercial space
  • Another (Dan) thought is to develop a program to match buyers with custom redevelopers able to convert abandoned properties into purchasable homes
  • Yet another is to charge a fee or extra tax on the owners of vacant properties (to encourage turnover)
  • Finally, we can provide tax incentives to investors that convert multi-unit houses back to single-family

The Mallach discussion gave me hope that the world of urban economic development could generate people with the right mindset to manage the revitalization process on the basis of rational economic analysis.

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8 Responses to “Managing the Trenton brand”

  • Capital 3:

    I dislike when Trentonians herald Baltimore or Providence as successful parallels of renaissance. It’s just not true. The biggest difference between Trenton and both of those cities is simple size and placement from other metropolitan areas.
    Baltimore is an independent city of over 600,000 people anchoring a metropolitan area of arguably 3.5 million. It’s far enough away from Washington DC to have it’s own dedicated suburbs. There were always people in and around Baltimore, doing business downtown, and enjoying Baltimore nightlife (hello Hammerjacks???) Revitalizing the Harbor in the early 80s simply gave Baltimoreans a place to go, and incited civic pride.
    Providence is a city of approximately 140,000 people anchoring a dedicated metropolitan area of 1.2million. Same story, but smaller scale. Clean up the waterfront, build a mall, and light a couple fires on the water to give the existing (suburban, be it) population something to do.
    What’s Trenton’s problem, then? It’s a frightfully convenient city of 85,000 (maybe less) firmly within the Philadelphia metropolitan area (Trenton/Ewing metroplex, my foot!). The State will always employ people and we have 6miles of Delaware waterfront. The problem is the existing population. Trenton can’t compete with Philly and New York so close. Trentonians themselves go elsewhere for entertainment (I go to Asbury Park, myself). We can hardly compete with small villages within our own ‘metropolitan area’; people who live in Lawrence or Hamilton say they live ‘outside Princeton’, but never ‘outside Trenton’. It doesn’t matter how many Bucks county yuppies we drag into see Big Bird at the Sovereign Bank Arena, they won’t stay unless there are pizza parlors and starbucks across the street.
    Trenton’s biggest disadvantage to maintaining a strong residential base is having no residential college or university. Ask New Haven how they’re renaissance is coming. If it weren’t for the notable colleges, I would suggest Annapolis as a parallel for Trenton; despite half the population, it has the weird dual metropolis identity and a huge state complex. Too bad it’s supported by the surrounding county.
    My best ideas to rebuild Trenton? Firstly, put it on sale. It has to compete with Philly, so make it better & cheaper to have an art studio in Trenton rather than Port Richmond. Give tax breaks to businesses, so that pizza parlor & starbucks will open. This may put us in the red, but it’s also basic economics; supply & demand. Secondly, stop spending money on stupid things. I won’t use a walking park across 29 from the state offices. period. never.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    Seems a bit of a rant though. Not sure what you’re proposing other than tax breaks for pizza parlors.

  • Capital 3:

    Yes, it is a rant, but I’m not a civic planner. I don’t know the solutions. I’m just a Trenton citizen who sees a historic city in a great location with amazing potential.
    I think the State’s got the best gig going in its ‘live where you work’ program, especially since Trenton can’t tax the State. How can we augment it? Can the city extend it to other employers? University of Maryland Medical pays the downpayment on any single family residence within a 20 block radius for any hospital employee. Providence charges no city tax on arts businesses within their ‘arts enterprise zone’. (and don’t take me verbatim, I’m repeating hearsay, but they do sound like good ideas, no?)
    I’m not a big fan of the redesign of 29, complete with ‘lighthouses’ that cop off Providence’s Waterfire, nor the recently installed streetlamps along Lamberton street. They seem like big expenses with little benefit to the city as a whole.
    However, please don’t compare Trenton to either, we have bigger obstacles than they.

  • What’s your rationale for being against Rt. 29?

    Why do you assume there’s not a good return on the Lamberton street lamps?

    How would tax breaks pay off for a city?

    This isn’t a site for unfounded ascertains. You might be right in all three cases but just making a statement isn’t enough.

    You don’t have to be a civic planner. I’m not. In fact, one could argue that civic planners have gotten Trenton in to the mess its in.

  • Capital 3:

    Last I saw of the 29 redesign it moved the highway further inland and left the Delaware waterfront as flood plain ‘park’. I understand this need. My issue is the only way to access the ‘park’ were via pedestrian bridges across the highway from the state offices. This, in my opinion, only makes a glorified picnic area for state employees. I don’t think people would actually go there evenings and weekends. It would be too secluded from the city (read dangerous). It would not foster community & interaction, nor financial benefits.
    I propose they make 29 stop & go, raise it above the high water level, add head in parking on the water side, make zebra crossings to the waterfront and a commercial zone on the city side. This will give every family coming off the turnpike & heading up to the Poconos a rest area to stretch their legs, a cup of coffee and get them into the city.
    What return is there on the Lamberton lights? I see no benefit to my lifestyle nor my neighborhood. Is it to make the street safer (well lit) and more comfortable? I sure wish we’d put the money into police instead. I don’t feel safe walking down Lamberton Street.
    Tax breaks bring new residents which bring added tax base. If you pay less in taxes wouldn’t you tell your friends of the deal you’re getting? If we continue to raise taxes we will bleed tax base. Heck, if we keep our tax rate the same we’ll lose people- to Hamilton and Ewing, let alone Princeton and Philly. It’s a very hard pill to swallow, but it’s the best chance we have.
    I don’t think these are difficult jumps, which is why I only allude to them. The initial point of my postings is to discourage comparison between Trenton and Baltimore, Providence, or New Haven. We need to find more apt models. I’ll research Cleveland, Asbury Park, and Cincinatti. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

  • “…charge a fee or extra tax on the owners of vacant properties (to encourage turnover).” That is a great idea- perhaps even levy a “blight tax” on properties used primarily as surface parking or on properties that are abandoned over a 1 year period… Very interesting read.

  • Eric Maywar:

    Wilmington DE instituted an aggressive Vacant Lot Registration Fee program that will both spur development and raise funds. A plan like this, in Wilmington, caused 380 vacant buildings to be occupied and raised over $400,000 in revenue for the city in 2005. It both spurs development and helps the city’s bottom line.

  • [...] about promoting Trenton we need a marketing strategy.  Read more about that in the following:  Managing the Trenton brand The first step in a plan to sell Trenton is to figure out what we’re selling and why.  This [...]

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