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Finally, a Plan! But, Don't Get Your Hopes Up!

One of Trenton’s octet of mayoral wannabe’s is rolling out his policy platform this week. Deputy County Clerk Walker Worthy released on Tuesday his “Plan for Jobs & Economy: Focus on Development and Opportunities.” After anxiously waiting for something like this from the various campaigns, I have to say I am not impressed.

The “Plan” is little more than a set of objectives and wishes, with no real road map for getting there, nor have any criteria or scoring been provided to estimate the benefits to the City of Trenton that these objectives will provide.

Let me explain, by quoting just a few of Mr. Worthy’s objectives, and my reactions to them.

“Worthy’s plan for Trenton includes developing the city’s waterfront as a tourist draw, including a casino…”

This is the proposal that is gaining some attention in the media this morning, and it’s what alerted me to the fact that Mr. Worthy released his “plan” in the first place.  This strikes me as poorly conceived and thought out. Why a casino? Where would it be? With Trenton surrounded for hundreds of miles by other gambling meccas in Bucks County, Philadelphia, New York, the Poconos, Maryland and Connecticut – not to mention Atlantic City, whose position as New Jersey’s hub of gambling and entertainment has been badly damaged by the competition from these other locations,  what would be the draw for a Trenton casino? Who would be the target market, when all of these other locations are located in closer proximity to larger populations?

Would the State allow a casino so close to AC, when its fortunes are declining? And in a state that legalized online gaming last year, what is the future for brick-and-mortar casinos? In January of this year, the state issued a report on gaming revenue results for December 2013.  As reported by NJ.com, this report was the first to include results for online gaming as well as casino.

This report showed that in-casino gambling declined 7.6% from December 2012 to December 2013. That is one month’s example, and one can’t derive long-term conclusions from one month’s numbers.

But that report does suggest that legalized online gambling has the real potential to cannibalize market share from existing casinos in the state of NJ. These results suggest that the market for gaming in NJ has a ceiling; it will not expand along with the expansion of opportunities to put $100 on new craps tables. It is what is called an inelastic market. Not good news for Atlantic City, let alone a prospective casino location such as Trenton.

With that in mind, what does Mr. Worthy think the prospects of a Trenton casino might be? What kind of numbers does he forecast for this casino?

We don’t know. His “plan” doesn’t say. He didn’t even cite any positive results or examples from other casino towns to bolster his case. Like so many statements from the candidates and his supporters, he expects the benefits from his “plan” to be self-evident without any arguments nor evidence in favor.

Fail.

“Worthy is also calling for the creation of a redevelopment authority in the city that will help speed the process for developers and identify critical areas of opportunity for building and growth.”

What’s wrong with the departments and agencies we already have? The City of Trenton has the Department of Housing and Economic Development. The State created the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation with exactly the same mission for which Mr. Worthy calls for a new agency?

Why? What is the case for starting a new authority? Sure, there are many criticisms one can offer up for the city’s H&ED department and the CCRC. But, before calling for a new agency, shouldn’t a candidate first make the case for scrapping the existing ones? I think so.

Fail.

“Use my experience and relationships with key state and county officials to create public/private partnerships and promote the benefit of doing business in Trenton.

Hmm, Mr. Worthy only talks about his ”experience and relationships” with public officials in the state and county. OK, I will grant him that he might be able to leverage those connections into something of benefit to Trenton.

But relationships with public officials, as good as they might be, are onlyone-half of any possible “public/private partnerships.”

What kind of ”experience and relationships” does Mr. Worthy have with those in the private sector, and how might they be relevant to developing future opportunities in Trenton? If he has few or none in the private sector, then wouldn’t that require him to be dependent on those “key state and county officials” to gain him entree to the private sector? And will those officials have Trenton’s best interests in mind?

I doubt it. Mr. Worthy’s experience is substantial in public service, on the county level at least which explains why the Mercer Democratic establishment (most of whom reside outside of Trenton) is supporting him so strongly. But he has shown he has no depth of  ”experience and relationships” of the kind in the private sector that could benefit Trenton. So,

Fail.

“Ensure all pending and future development provides a long-term benefit to the city.”

How does Mr. Worthy plan to ensure this? Over the last year or two, we have seen only activity on the development front that singularly fails to provide direct, long-term benefits to the city.

For example, the acquisition by Thomas Edison State College of the Glen Cairn Arms site on West State Street. The only tangible direct benefit to the City was a one-time $300,000 payment in lieu of taxes to the city. The project was touted by the City and County as having the potential of some positive spin-offs to the city: opportunities for nearby retail establishments serving the student body and faculty of the new school being built there, and the educational and professional opportunities to be offered to Trenton residents. But those benefits are intangible, in the future, and anything but assured. In the meantime, one of the prime parcels of Trenton waterfront real estate was taken off the city’s tax rolls, with the active basking of the City, County and State.

The State is also crippling Trenton’s future revenue opportunities, for at least the next 20 years, under the terms of the “New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013,” the State has created a program of tax incentives and credits for preserving existing commercial development and  jobs in the state. But the Act does so by exempting projects developed under this Act from all state and local taxes, including municipal taxes, for a period of up to ten years, and allowing for deep discounts on those taxes for up to another ten.

In the official Legislative Fiscal Estimate prepared for the State Legislature last year before passage of the bill, the impact of this program on towns such as Trenton was predicted as follows:

The Garden State Growth Zone (GSGZ) property valuation exemption will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues for the cities of Paterson, Passaic, Trenton and Camden to encourage potential development which may not occur without GSGZ incentives. [Emphasis mine - KM]

Given this context, and the environment under which the City will function over the next two decades (at least), how can Mr. Worthy – or any candidate – claim he can ”ensure all pending and future development provides a long-term benefit to the city.”

He can’t. He doesn’t even acknowledge the tremendous roadblocks put in place crippling the City and any new Administration. I’d like to see him, and any other candidate, discuss their plans for the economic future of Trenton in the context of that horrible Act of 2013, and hear their plans for objectives for amending it or otherwise limiting the damage to Trenton from the guarantee of “significantly reduced property tax revenues.”

Unless and until Mr. Worthy can speak to the realities  and restraints that these and other handicaps to our development impose upon Trenton, I have to consider his promise as little more than bluster, and therefore a

Fail.

I’m glad to think that this election process is finally getting to the point when campaigns are starting to talk about substance. But I am entirely disappointed by Mr. Worthy’s proposals, at least as released today. I am convinced that his candidacy for mayor of a City with whose affairs  he has little relevance is ill-considered. I am further convinced that the massive support he enjoys from the County Democratic establishment is being provided for purposes other than the benefit and best interests of the citizens of Trenton. What might those purposes be? I have no idea.

But I do know it’s  not because he will be the best person to be Mayor of Trenton.

4 comments to Finally, a Plan! But, Don’t Get Your Hopes Up!

  • Joey Kulkin

    Impressive breakdown, bit by bit.

    Too bad you’re not running for mayor.

  • Mr Harry W Chapman

    The poor people of Trenton don’t need a casino, they can hardly make it now. I am against putting Casino’s in urban areas because of that reason. The only businesses that it will help will be pawn shops.

  • Nicole Glonek

    Wow! I met Worthy at a Buono fund raiser last year and your observations in this piece mirrored my observations that very day. Dead on! As a suffering resident of Trenton so far I don’t see any stand out candidates for Mayor, just more glory seekers. By the way, if the Times prints my abbreviated opinion piece about meeting some of the those running for council at the Villa Park Civic Association, I hope you take a moment to read it. Right hand to God, Pearlie Murray suggested we bring tourists to Trenton by building a museum. There were plenty of other stupid things said that night, my original piece was over 1200 words and I would be happy to share it with you.