Posts Tagged ‘revitalization’
Our country’s economy and especially its real estate market has been in a slump for 4 years. However, in the next 2 years we’re going to come out of it, no matter who wins the Presidential election.
When that happens, we don’t want Trenton to be left behind.
A normal economy will grow around 2-3% a year. For Trenton with its $1.9B tax base and ~ $70M in property tax revenue that means our revenues could increase $1.4M – $2.1M a year. That’s if we were normal.
The problem is that our Mayor has become a national and regional publicity problem due to his various missteps and most notably his arrest by the FBI on corruption charges. It should be obvious to us that no matter how good the national economy, a developer, potential homeowner or business owner would not want to invest in a city under such leadership.
Tony Mack is a drag on Trenton’s economic recovery.
In addition to the bad reputation he’s given the city, it’s also become apparent that Mack’s administration has no intention of addressing our economic growth. In Mack’s 2 ½ years in office he has not made one proposal to increase our tax base. In his 10/16/2012 budget address to City Council he did not mention ratables or growth in property taxes other than to pitch his proposed $.19 tax hike, which would have a negative impact on economic growth.
Mack is not thinking about revitalization. He’s never mentioned it. There’s never been a plan presented. This city’s budget discussions have never contemplated expenditures related to increasing our tax base and thereby our property taxes, our single largest source of revenue.
If by inaction and negative publicity, he “drags” our economic growth by even one quarter of one percent or $150K per year in growth, we would be better off paying the man to step down. We’d be better off paying Tony Mack his $126,000 a year salary, NOT to show up for work.
For a man facing a difficult legal battle and under severe personal financial distress, this seems a win-win for both Tony Mack and the City of Trenton.
If you’ve driven up the turnpike from Exit 7 to 8A then you’ve undoubtedly seen all of the giant distribution centers.
These are businesses that could have been located in Trenton if we’d gotten our act together.
One of the things you do as an aspiring civic leader in Trenton is go to workshops where you’re asked to list Trenton’s assets. People always give the same answers: its people, its buildings and its location.
Well our people are going to work on the turnpike corridor in places like East Windsor and Robbinsville, our buildings are empty and our location isn’t as good a one would have thought.
Instead Barnes and Noble, Green Mountain Coffee and likely Amazon along with many others have set up shop in modern warehouse space in the suburbs.
Before the apologist tell me that building new construction space is cheap and Trenton can’t compete, let me suggest that we didn’t even try. Doug Palmer was asleep at the wheel and Tony Mack is, well he’s Tony Mack.
The explosion in industry just 10 miles from downtown Trenton happened without our city even lifting a finger to figure out how we might be competitive.
We had at least one competitive advantage over the suburbs. Those warehouse facilities are hiring Trenton people. The Kenco facility that houses Green Mountain Coffee are actually bussing Trentonians to Robbinsville.
What went wrong?
My guess is that the views on business among the city leadership are simply too provincial to understand what was happening. Additionally our culture of corporate extortion limits us to dealing with small time developers. Serious logistics companies like Kenco wouldn’t give a trifling crook like Tony Mack the time of day.
Furthermore we just don’t have a good story to tell. To attract a 500,000 SF logistics operation we’d need to show why Trenton is a less costly option than a “Greenfield” in Robbinsville. We’d have needed all the creative business people we could muster to pull that story together. A difficult task indeed, but we didn’t even make a serious effort.
Trenton misses out on opportunities like this because we are distracted from the job of revitalizing our city. Instead of attracting world class development, we’re busy playing political games to attract housing projects like HOPE VI. We spend our days begging for money through grant writing and we reshuffle the deck chairs in our city budget.
I don’t expect Trenton to develop a plan in the next two years. Rather we’ll need to wait until a new administration is elected. In the meantime, we need to listen for candidates who have a “can do“attitude about engaging the city in developing a real revitalization plan.
Catchy, isn’t it. I’m offering it up as a slogan for the next Mayor of Trenton. In fact, I’m suggesting that it be the entire campaign platform.
Trenton currently has a per capita income of $17,066 per person according the US Census Bureau (2009 numbers). However, as we’re fond of saying in Trenton, “There’s always Camden”, which is $12,777. The average for all of New Jersey is $34,622 . Trenton’s per capita income is half that of the average for New Jersey. This is why we struggle as a city. There’s no money here.
To help clarify our revitalization mission here in Trenton I offer Clifton, NJ. Clifton is a “middle of the pack” city in New Jersey with a per capita income of $30,552. It also happens to be the same size as Trenton with a population of 85,000. Clifton is a great aspirational target in terms of economic activity.
Clifton is a quiet bedroom community for New York City with nice parks and good schools. It’s also quite diverse. Given Trenton’s history and location I’m sure that given the same income mix we’d be a much better place to live? “Go Trenton, Beat Clifton”.
Why focus on income as a measure anyway? Everything is tied to income: Housing values, student performance and even crime. There aren’t too many high income areas with run down houses, bad schools and rampant crime. Nobody hopes to revitalize their town by lowering the income.
Per capita income targets give us something at which to aim. How far should we go? Let’s be reasonable and assume that a city should be a diverse, after all we don’t want to be Princeton. Furthermore we’re starting from pretty far in the hole so let’s give ourselves a break and shoot for, say, $30,000. That’s a round number and about the same as Clifton, so when we make it, we’ll declare victory.
Furthermore, a city’s per capita income tells you whether the city is being subsidized by state, county and federal governments (i.e. is it a drain on society?). It tells you whether the tax rate is high and whether it can pay for the things that make a city nice: like parks, public art and libraries.
Make no mistake about it though, I don’t equate the $35,000,000 or so the state currently pays Trenton as “aid”. When you do the math on the State’s property in Trenton, they should be paying a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) of about that amount. However, when we include our schools, it’s clear that the State is massively subsidizing us as they pay roughly 80% of the budget.
If our next Mayor and city council really want to focus on revitalization, they will worry less about attracting affordable housing and halfway houses and more about moving up the ranks of per capita income.
Sounds great but here’s the catch. Given Trenton’s current population of 85,000 people at an income of $17,066, we’ll need to add 79,000 people with a per capita income of $45,000. We’ll be a vibrant city of 164,000 people living in beautifully converted lofts, gleaming high-rises and restored 19th century homes.
To put this into real terms, to reach our goal, we would have to absorb 20 times the population of affluent Lambertville to move our average up to Clifton’s. Imagine that: Trenton will have to convince 79,000 Lambertville-like folks to leave their restored historic houses, fine eateries and antique shops to move to Trenton. That’s a lot of convincing but it’s what has to be done.
This goal has other implications. Remember that per capita means “per person”. Children that don’t earn $45,000 / year will bring down the average. This is a serious realization. It means that we need to work especially hard to attract childless adults who make at least $90,000 per couple. This is especially important when we realize that Trenton’s largest cost is support of children. In order to fix our economy and our budget we need to become an especially attractive place for singles, retirees, gay couples and young marrieds. This formula is a familiar platform in revitalized cities across America.
Every good platform needs planks and for revitalization there are only three that matter:
• Bring back the middle and upper class. Whenever a new proposal comes into city hall, department directors would have to ask themselves, “Will this get us to $30,000 per capita income?”. Let’s face it, the only proposal that will pass muster are ones that attract middle class and upper income to town or that provide high paying new jobs.
• Institute a pro-growth tax system – Our property taxes are not only highest in NJ but they also discourage development. A land-value tax would tax land at a very high rate but improvements at a very low rate. This encourages developers to build very dense and very expensive buildings. We want that.
• Reject new affordable housing projects. Affordable Housing programs like Leewood Village, HOPE VI and Mt. Laurel RCA contributions will be banned from Trenton. As evidenced by the Lamberton Historic Districts stance against these projects, Mill Hill, Berkley Sq. Cadwalder Heights, Glen Afton and Hiltonia have worked hard to raise their standard of living; other neighborhoods want the same success but just don’t want the city working against them.
• Listen to what the people want. Take to heart what your current middle and upper class citizens are telling you. They want Arts, Crime Prevention, Preservation and Clean Streets. They can’t be any clearer.
I don’t mean to suggest that taking this radical approach to revitalization will be easy for a political candidate. For years Trentonians have been misled to believe that affordable housing IS revitalization. Also, there is a large part of Trenton’s population that makes their living catering to the poor, either through state government or the various non-profits with offices in town. We’re practically a company town for the underclass. However, to “Beat Clifton” and get to $30,000 we’ve got to move forward.
I challenge out next crop of mayoral candidate to seize the agenda of growing Trenton into a powerhouse city. You will have plenty of support from voters that are ready to welcome 79,000 affluent new neighbors.
Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!
For the past year I’ve been working pretty hard as a volunteer to support the administration by providing what I hope are responsible processes for engaging the public in designing a fiscal way forward for the city. As part of the Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee, I’ve helped elicit public priorities about the budget, I’ve helped propose a budget process that would lead to more deliberative choices and I’ve helped to put forward new ideas on revenue especially the Land Value Tax. In addition, I’ve respectfully suggested that we take a more pragmatic approach to our support for subsidized housing. These efforts have met with mixed success.
The Fix Trenton’s Budget Committee’s efforts have been mainly targeted at helping the city to be more responsive. However, over the years, I’ve also dedicated this blog to many of the fundamental economic principles that could lead Trenton to revitalization. Many of these ideas are difficult for citizens to get excited about. Most people’s eyes simply glaze over when they read about money.
Certainly my ideas have fallen on deaf ears in both the previous and current administrations and for the most part on both the previous and current city council. Math and fiscal discipline aren’t fun. I get that.
However, allow me to point out another economic truism that should get everybody’s attention.
Civil unrest is bad for business.
The racial intolerance and threatening language that the Recall Mack campaign workers experienced this week from the Mayor’s supporters including his brother, is a sign of a civil unrest in Trenton. It belies an undercurrent of hate that’s been stoked by the Mayor’s supporters that could easily lead to violence.
Rarely do vibrant economies flourish in this kind of atmosphere. Can you imagine a white family wanting to move to Trenton when city workers and the Mayor’s political supporters shout racial epitaphs at their white neighbors? Would black families of good nature come here? Hispanics or Asian? If I had seen this 11 years ago when I was deciding to invest in Trenton I know I would have reconsidered.
With this kind of attitude in City Hall, how will ideas meant to attract investment (some of it from white developers) ever win public support. Anything a white person suggests will be met with suspicion by a populace emboldened by their leadership to think “black first”. We just can’t have that.
It’s difficult for me to feel good about suggesting economic ideas to help the city when I think that my neighbors and perhaps even our city leaders will discount them because I’m white.
Trenton is a difficult situation and it’s going to take the best ideas in this country to fix it. We don’t have the luxury of wallowing in a pit of racial hatred.
In fact, I’ll go further and suggest that one of the key ingredients to reinventing Trenton is for this city to be seen as a bastion of racial harmony. New residents and investors like racial harmony and avoid the kind of hate speech that’s happening in Trenton today.
Mayor Mack gave his first State of the City address tonight. What a great opportunity to lay out a vision and plan for the city you love. What an opportunity to solidly address Trenton’s number one problem, its economy. What a great opportunity to turn around a tumultuous 1st year term and silence the critics.
What an opportunity not taken. Read the rest of this entry »
No matter what you hear from boosters selling you rose colored glasses or what you hear from detractors who think everyone who visits the Capitol City gets shot, Trenton’s economic situation is bad. Our per capita income is about half the average for New Jersey as is our assessed property value. We can’t afford our own municipal government, much less our schools.
We’re overburdened given our size and even with state and federal aid, our tax rate is high. The plain truth is that our tax rate for 2011 will be the highest in NJ. In this regard, our property tax is definitely, “foe”. Read the rest of this entry »
As the new Citizen’s Budget Committee prepares to form its recommendations to the public and our elected officials, I pondered aloud to my committee, “what limits our pace of revitalization?”
I’ll get to the answer but first I’ll recap the problem and the solution.
Our economic problems are dangerous
A good first step towards Trenton’s revitalization is reinventing its tax system. Restructuring the tax system will take strong leadership, a good ability to communicate and a desire to be a leader in NJ’s efforts to reinvent its urban centers. My hope is that our next mayor can take up the mantle of making this important change. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the most maddening debates you can have in Trenton is about city investment in new business vs. residential living.
Almost, to a person, the political elite in Trenton will tell you that investment in business is the top priority. I’ve had this debate countless times and you can see it in the political rhetoric of our candidates. However, when pushed by the logic of residential development, they’ll eventually say, “well it’s really a chicken and egg” problem. Read the rest of this entry »