My Trenton Resume
Apparently, one needs Trenton “cred” to be part of the political discourse in Trenton. It’s obvious that “clear thought” isn’t a pre-requisite. So to try and establish a bit more “right to talk”, here’s my Trenton story.
Unlike a lot of people involved in Trenton politics and revitalization I wasn’t born and bred here. I was born in Alexandria, VA and was raised mostly in North Carolina. My wife, Michelle Emerson, and I moved to NJ from Dallas in 1998 and to Trenton in 2000. That’s 11 years in Trenton, not exactly born and bred, but pretty long.
Our Development efforts
We moved to Trenton with the idea of buying an old warehouse or factory and converting it in to a loft. At the time, that hadn’t been done in Trenton in any scale. We lived in Grand Court Villas for six years while we looked, which is itself a converted cigar factory.
As we looked, we estimate we’ve walked through about 500,000 SF of vacant Trenton buildings with our realtor, Anne LaBate and sometimes with our architect, Rich Carrol. Buildings were either too big, too far gone or in really rough areas, sometimes all three.
We almost gave up looking, but in 2005 we purchased our current mixed use building on S. Broad St. on the outskirts of Mill Hill. We kept the front half of the 5200 SF building intact as two rental apartments and a storefront. We gutted the back half of the building to create an open (aka lofty) living space for us. Our home has been featured on HGTV’s “What You Get For the Money”. Viewers from across the country got to see our Trenton home and suffered through my explanation of the city’s history. We invested about $400,000 in this project.
In 2002 we bought two rental properties in downtown Trenton on Peace St. We rehabbed one of them ourselves and had the second one professionally renovated complete with a design from Rich Carrol and construction from a first time Trenton General Contractor. This was a major upgrade in housing stock for Peace St. and adds to the inventory of living space in downtown. We invested about $200,000 in these properties.
We’ve invested $600,000 in Trenton.
In the process of doing these three projects I’ve learned how painful it can be to be a developer in Trenton.
- I was told by the previous administration that my original desire for a $500K loft in downtown Trenton was misguided and that I should move to Hiltonia instead.
- I’ve been cited by rental unit inspectors for non-sense violations
- I’ve had plan reviews held up for months by a slow technical inspections department
- We’ve evicted tenants, gone months on end with empty units and not been able to raise rents in 6 years.
- Our tax rate has been raised every year
- We’ve been charged a rental license fee and can’t figure out what it pays for
- We had difficulty finding property insurance (Note to regulators: State Farm red lines Trenton)
As part of the 2002 Leadership Trenton program I led an effort to have that group start a homesteading program only to be torpedoed by the previous administration. They preferred to reserve the neighborhood we targeted for HOPE VI and the Leewood Village project, both of which never happened.
While we were looking for property to develop, I started a web site called TrentonLofts.com. Trenton Lofts was set up to collect and inform a group of potential investors, buyers and renters about the project we would eventually build. Along the way, I turned it into a more generic site that promotes residential development in Trenton (for free). I don’t charge developers and I do answer personal emails from potential residents and investors who have questions about Trenton, specific neighborhoods and projects.
Over the years, I estimate I’ve helped sell at least 11 units and have indirectly supported the sale of many more. Recent residents stop me all the time and tell me how much trentonlofts.com helped them in that I would give objective advice about Trenton. You can do that when you don’t charge for listing a property.
Trentonlofts.com has listed over 100 properties over the past 6 years and gets thousands of visits a week. It has an large associated email list of potential Trenton residents who receive an irregular newsletter about loft projects and some politics.
Creating an arts community
My stated investment philosophy for Trenton was to buy low, help make the city a more attractive place to live and then, because Trenton had revitalized, sell high. Seemed like a good idea in 2000 before I knew better.
Along the way we’ve spent quite a bit of time involved in supporting Trenton’s arts community.
- Michelle and I were on the founding board for the Trenton Film Society and helped run the first Trenton Film Festival.
- Michelle has been on the Trenton City Museum Board
- She’s been on the Passage Theatre board where she’s run the Passage Gala
- Both of us were on the Art All Night Committee, Michelle twice
We’ve supported almost every arts format there is in Trenton with patronage and donations hoping to make those organization stronger and the city more attractive to new residents.
Our Civic Association
We’re active in our civic association and have helped run the Old Mill Hill Society’s Fall Festival and its Holiday House Tour. Our home has been on the Mill Hill Garden Tour, which along with the Holiday Tour raise money to support the organization and its grant program.
I was in the inaugural class of Leadership Trenton in 2002. It was good group and many of its members have run for office and otherwise been heavily involved in the community.
I’ve done about everything there is to do in politics short of run for office and even then I’ve worked on campaigns. I’ve helped organize petition drives, and I’ve helped run candidate forums in 2006 for Trenton Council of Civic Associations and in 2010 for the Old Mill Hill Society. There was that little incident of a 2010 “writen-in” mayoral campaign that I wish had never happened. Lesson learned, every vote counts.
I helped form and run the Lamberton Historic District Committee which fought the HOPE VI and Leewood Village projects in South Trenton. Both projects were being shoved down the neighborhood’s throat and both included subsidized affordable housing. The Leewood Village project would have bulldozed 8 square blocks of homes. It was initially backed by city council and the Mayor. We protested in the press and on the streets and eventually the city backed down. By opposing the projects, the neighborhood had the opportunity to attract market rate private development in the form of Coopers Crossing (Ryan Homes) and Trenton Ferry (HHG Development).
I was a charter member of Trenton’s Urban Studies Group which met and discussed many books about cities and revitalization over the course of two years. I’m proud of its role in stimulating authors David Hart and John Calu to write their new book, Trenton: A Novel.
For the past four years I’ve written a blog about the economics of revitalization in Trenton called ReinventTrenton.com. There are over 80 articles that include research and analysis of economic issues ranging from the Economics of Crime, to management philosophy to budget and taxes. ReinventTrenton.com is the most complete compendium of policy and revitalization thinking available in Trenton. The site attracts hundreds of viewers in a typical month and is widely read by Trentonians interested in policy and politics.
I started Fix Trenton’s Budget and think tank of 12 people who are developing citizen led positions on important topics relating to our budget and budget process. The group will use these positions to help educate the public and our elected leaders on the difficult choices facing Trenton’s budget. One of its first efforts was an economic scorecard for candidates in the 2010 election. We’re actively working with city government on our projects.
I’m currently serving on the Lafayette Yard Community Development Board which oversees the city’s interest in the Marriott Hotel.
Being part of the community
On Dec. 20, 2008 our 19 ½ month old son, Alexander, passed in his sleep from an as yet unexplained cause. Our son is buried in Trenton at Riverview Cemetary and we have a headstone and plot with his and our name on it. We’ll be buried in Trenton next to Alexander.
Michelle and I organized Alexander’s Run in downtown Trenton which raises money to support research into Sudden Unexplained Death in Children (SUDC) and for the Alexander Michael Dodson Scholarship Fund which sends Trenton children to an educational summer camp.
Michelle has been on the Child Placement Review Board which looks after the children in DYFS cases. She also founded the ROCKETS science and math program at Trenton Head Start. Michelle’s been in the Junior League for 10 years, on the board for 4 and is the immediate past president of that organization which supports women’s and children’s causes in our community.
Along with two other couples, Michelle and I co-host one of Trenton’s biggest annual private parties. With another interracial couple (BTW – I’m white and Michelle is black) we host Trenton’s annual Loving Day cookout commemorating the 1967 Supreme Court Case: Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia which legalized interracial marriage in the US.
We were members of the Trenton Club where Michelle was on the Board. We are current members of the Trenton Country Club. Both of these institutions are long standing parts of Trenton’s history.
I’ve been robbed three times and we’ve had murders on our block.
Why get more involved in public policy
I’ve done everything I can think of with my money and time to revitalize Trenton and have come to realize that I’ve got an uphill battle that can’t be won without a more enlightened government. I’ve met all of our politicians and know that many of them will welcome help in thinking through the problems of urban revitalization. Every hour I spend volunteering and every dollar I give is mostly wasted until we have a city that’s operating in a way that will stimulate investment.
My real Job
My bread isn’t buttered in Trenton so I’m not beholden to any politician or government agency. Instead I work for a management consulting firm in Philadelphia called IBB Consulting where I’m a Fellow. We help our clients with their strategies, improving their operations and rolling out large infrastructure investments. Our clients are mostly large cable operators.
I got my undergraduate degree in Computer Science from NC State University in 1984. That means I was there in 1983 when the mighty Wolfpack won the NCAA Basketball Championship under Jim Valvano. I also have an MBA from Harvard Business School, class of 1990.
Other Cities in which I’ve lived
A person’s perception of a place is often shaped by where they’ve lived. In addition to Alexandria and Dallas, I’ve lived in Boston, Atlanta, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Cullowhee, NC, Athens, GA and have spent significant time in Denver, Bangkok, Prague and Hong Kong.