“It’s not an open, public process, sorry, and it never really is. If people want to think it wasn’t enough, or too much, that’s the way the negotiations went, this is the deal on the table.”
Those words were spoken by Trenton’s Acting Director of Housing and Economic Development, JR Capasso, at a City Hall forum yesterday afternoon to discuss the proposed sale of 301 West State Street to Thomas Edison State College (TESC). As reported in this morning’s Trenton Times, it sounds to me that Mr. Capasso believes this is a take-it-or-leave-it deal. “Frankly, I was happy for the $1.4 million to get the building demolished,” which is the only benefit the City and its taxpayers are going to get from the sale of the site of the decrepit Glen Cairn Arms buildings. That, and a one-time only payment of $300,000 to the city by TESC, which is a fraction of what Trenton would earn in property taxes from even a modest commercial development.
Well, if that’s the only offer on the table, Mr. Capasso, I would have to say “No Deal.”
Before we get any further, it should be said that should City Council, at its scheduled February 7 vote, decides against the current proposal, this would not end the project. There are many alternative paths to pursue from that point. The City can re-open negotiations with TESC for a better deal. A deal based, perhaps, on an annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) fee to the City; perhaps an arrangement based on annual Rent to be paid to the City as a landlord, should Trenton retain title to the property. Or, as TESC President Dr. George Pruitt seemed to offer in the meeting yesterday, the college would look at another site in Trenton.
There are many options forward, if Council votes No on February 7. There are none if the vote is Yes.
Apart from the paltry financial terms of the deal, there is also this to consider: the City has indicated that if we sell 301 West State to the College, and the State of New Jersey fails to fund TESC’s proposal at the amount requested, or if for any other reason the project stalls, the college will still own the property, and will be able to do with it what it will. To me, that is a real potential downside to the proposal.
There are several reasons that delaying now makes sense. And none to move forward at the rapid pace this is moving along. Which is probably why yesterday’s “forum” was structured as it was.
As the Times article by Erin Duffy reports, “residents and officials continued to ask questions on the project’s tax and traffic impact and the behind-the-scenes negotiations that brought the plan to life.”
But Dr. Pruitt and the other participating officials had no answers, and were not going to volunteer any more information that they absolutely had to. “Pruitt told the crowd of 40 gathered at City Hall that he was not there to engage in a back-and-forth over the project’s economic impacts or renegotiate the land deal,” Ms. Duffy reports. He was only there to answer very narrow questions about the deal on the table, the take-it-or-leave-it ordinance Council will consider on February 7.
There were several supporters of the project there last night. An account by one member of the public present at the meeting, Jim Carlucci, describes how Dr. Pruitt characterized their support: “After listing all the people and entities that have come out in support of the project Pruitt stated ‘we can’t all be wrong.’”
Please raise your hand if you think we can take that to the bank!
There were some skeptical voices there, from rather unlikely (to readers of this space, at least) sources. Council Member-at-Large Kathy McBride called for a cautious response to this proposal. Referring to supporters’ claims for all the benefits and trickle-down effects that would fall on the surrounding neighborhood, she said, “This conversation has taken place many times before and it was always the same deal. ‘You need to act because this is an eyesore and we need to enhance our city, it will boost the other property values.’ But still we’re left with the burden [presumably the financial burden on the city of another tax-exempt property]. It’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen on my watch.”
Member-at-Large Alex Bethea also struck a prudent note, suggesting that any deal should include fair, annual income to the City. “I am not interested in [the single payment of] $300,000. If they said, ‘we’ll pay $10,000 a year from now until Jesus returns,’ that would be better than $300,000 once and we’re done.”
What a world this is! Kathy McBride and Alex Bethea are the voices of reason, and all the rest are saying, “We can’t all be wrong!” But here we are.
This forum, as described in the Times article and in the accounts of eyewitnesses, does not change anything. This morning, the offer on the table still looks to be a bad deal for the taxpayers of the City of Trenton. This is good for TESC, and I do not object to Dr. Pruitt fighting for the best interests of his school. That is his job.
But as it stands now, the best interests of Thomas Edison State College and the best interests of the taxpayers of Trenton are at odds. This proposal to remove this parcel of city-owned real estate – purchased for millions of dollars after years of legal dispute, remember – from the city’s ratables forever, in return for a pittance of a payment, deserves to be turned down.
Let’s Make a (Better) Deal.