At several points during last night’s City Council meeting, I found myself asking if Trenton even has any more reason to be anymore. That is, is there a compelling case to be made that there is a future for the City of Trenton as a going concern?
I really can’t say if I have an answer for that.
Yesterday evening Council met to review its docket for Thursday night’s session, and to hear a presentation from Dr. George Pruitt, President of Thomas Edison State College (TESC). I attended the meeting, and spoke during Public Comment. Much of the following will be taken from what I said last night. Dan Dodson has another account of the session on his blog today. Other impressions can be found on the always-authoritative From the Front Stoop.
Dr. Pruitt spoke on behalf of the college. He expanded on what had previously been reported and discussed in public since the news was released on Friday that TESC and the City intend to move forward with a proposal to raze the existing Glen Cairn Arms buildings at 301 West State Street, and build a new Center for the college’s Nursing School. The project is estimated at $16.7 Million, including an allowance to demolish the existing buildings and perform any required environmental remediation. It is reported that the 90-year-old building is riddled with asbestos. The proposal also includes a one-time payment of $300,000 to the City in lieu of taxes, the only direct revenue that is likely to come from that property, ever, under the terms of this plan.
During his presentation, Dr. Pruitt explained that none of the funds required for the project are yet committed. The school will apply for about $12 Million from the State’s pool of $750 Million in bond proceeds for higher education construction approved by voters two months ago. He stated he feels “very optimistic” that the school’s application will be successful. Matching funds in the amount of 25%, or a little under $5 Million, must be raised by the school according to the regulations for the state funds; the President all but guaranteed the school will raise those funds.
Dr. Pruitt also described all of the empty properties in that stretch of West State, promising that his development will boost the fortunes of the surrounding neighborhood. How this will be was not explained, especially since there are many vacant and empty properties down near the existing TESC campus, as well as right across the street from the State Capitol. Those structures haven’t contributed much secondary benefit to their neighborhoods; why should the Nursing Center?
Dr. Pruitt also described how his school annually generates about 90%, or $50 Million, of TESC’s annual $55 Million budget from student tuition. The remaining $5 Million, I assume, comes from other typical college revenue: grants, donations, bequests, and a nominal and surely shrinking state appropriation.
Given those numbers, I asked Council what happens if the State reduces the amount of the funds awarded. What if they grant $5 Million or $6, instead of the full request? And knowing from Dr. Pruitt’s statement that the school raises about $5 Million from all other sources for their existing operations, what was the prospect that they can raise another $4.7 Million – double their usual annual yield from all other revenues – in a short time for this project?
Now, the school may very well be able to do this. They may have a lot of that money standing by. But they did not say anything about that last night. And no one on Council asked one question of Dr. Pruitt about their ability of the school and its Board to raise those funds. As of last night, the project has zero committed funds. That is an inescapable fact.
The City’s Acting Director of Housing and Economic Development, J. R. Capasso – the latest in a long line of people to occupy that slot, as resident and my Zoning Board colleague Donald Brokate reminded people – spoke at length about the history of that site, and the difficulty of attracting a legitimate and serious proposal. The chief problem for any potential investor according to Mr. Capasso is the requirement for any new owner to demolish and remediate the existing situation.That expense would not be feasible for any developer to undertake, and that is why TESC’s proposal is attractive.
I reminded Council that in my short 15 years in town, I knew of at least two large projects, the Champale site and the Magic Marker one, where public and private funds were used to remediate and turn the sites into clean development-ready locations able to be returned to the tax rolls, as in those two cases they have. Surely there are other examples.
During Mr. Capasso’s statement, he mentioned three proposals that the site did actually receive, all of which the City rejected. The first was for an Affordable Housing project; the second he described as “a dream project” of residential and commercial development, but having no committed financing attached; and a third he described as a “Walgreen’s-type store,” which would not be appropriate for the location, and also generate “only a few tens of thousands” of property taxes for the city each year.
I cited this statement of Mr. Capasso’s as an inadvertently perfect example of why Trenton is in the state it is in today. He was entirely dismissive (I used the actual word “contemptuous” last night) of the Walgreen’s proposal. Although I did not suggest an actual Walgreen’s for the Glen Cairn site, I used that example to illustrate that, even at a “few tens of thousands” per year of taxes, after 10 or 15 years, such a project would throw off as much in revenue as we are ever going to see from TESC. After 20 to 25 years, that amount would double. And so on into the future. For the City of Trenton to be so short-sighted as to dismiss that kind of prospect is appalling to me.
And this comes around to my main points. Trenton is already chock-ful of non-profit and public properties, taking up over 53% of the total value of this City. We can’t afford any more, at least on sites as potentially valuable as 301 West State. The only remaining major revenue stream we have from the State of New Jersey is “Transitional Aid,” a program that is designed to dwindle down to nothing in the very near future. We are supposed to be transitioning to the point where the City is self-sufficient financially, increasing the amount of revenue – mostly property taxes – it earns. I reminded Council that we are nowhere close to doing this.
To allow a site such as Glen Cairn Arms to be developed as a tax-free property sends precisely the opposite signal that the City of Trenton should be sending right now. The site has been abandoned for decades, and not generating taxes, but the City should take the initiative to clear the location and reserve this showcase location for private development. If the City can’t do that here, for the love of God where will they ever do it?
Most people last night disagreed with that sentiment. From Dr. Pruitt, to Mr. Capasso, to several city residents and business leaders (and City Council members too, judging by their softball and non-related questions), they all seemed to agree that there is little to no likelihood that the site, even if cleared and made shovel-ready, would attract zero interest to a private developer.
So at the end of last night, which is only the beginning of the process to approve this project, it looks like the decks have been cleared in order to move this Nursing Center along. The proposal, I will say, is a good one from an institution that is committed to the City of Trenton. I just wish it wasn’t going to be built there. We have an entire hospital complex, empty and ready for the taking, just a few blocks away at the Mercer Campus of Capital Health. I think that is far better suited for this project as well as a lot of future expansion for the college. I was one of apparently very few people there last night to feel the same, sorry to say.
Which is why I felt so down on the City’s future last night, and this morning. The City’s finances are in the toilet. In the last couple of years, the decline in the market value of its taxable property has been measured in the Hundreds of Millions of Dollars, and still going down. State aid is Transitioning to Zero, and forests of “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs are everywhere.
With all that going on, the prospect that the City seems to have been seduced by a high-prestige quality project like TESC’s Nursing Center – a project that will have zero direct contribution to the economic health of the City of Trenton – makes me very pessimistic that we will take any steps to re-build this town and make it sustaining.
I really don’t know how this town can make a case that it has a reason to be anymore.