Seven Ideas for Economic Development

Everybody agrees that we need more residential and more jobs in Trenton.  Here’re some important steps to get there.  This list is not meant to exclude other ideas, but to suggest first steps.

#1.  Professional Recruiting Tools

The City needs professional recruiting tools which it currently does not have to attract

  • residential,
  • large businesses who will increase the tax base and employ Trentonians, and
  • small boutique businesses who attract the large businesses and residential,

I recommend we develop

  • A business attraction kit
  • A city website structured to help recruitment and retention
  • Appropriate advertising and mailings

Business Attraction Kit

Each item listed below would be included depending on the prospect.  Different combinations would be used, for example, for office tenants, restaurants, retail, and for potential businesses with different space requirements.

  • An opportunity statement, cover letter.
  • 1 sheet quality of life–schools, crime, open space, cultural assets, restaurants
  • 1 sheet downtown is a great place to do businesses–labor shed, transit, parking, positive trends, city attitudes towards business, downtown success stories
  • 1 sheet available office space
  • 1 newspaper article about revitalization efforts
  • Demographic Sheet: to include trade area information, committed projects, population, working population, traffic counts, household and income 1-3 45 miles and 20 minutes, age, 1,3,5 mile ring map

Website Restructuring

A website that can support business recruitment and retention – this is content, reorganization and enabling technology.

  • Business links and focus included on homepage.
  • Homepage shouldn’t just be press releases, but like http://www.centercityphila.org/ a portal for easy access to the information you want—sorted by area (opening a business in Trenton, living in Trenton, events in Trenton, arts in Trenton) with drop down menus and links to .pdfs and other sites.
  • More obvious available office and retail space solicitation on website homepage
  • Reports from TDA, City, Isles, CCRC, testimony on important issues etc.  An annual City state of the City report (put annual meeting presentation into report and publish.  Use Center City website as model.)
  • Eat and shop section should be drop down menu sortable, with restaurant menus and pictures

The Center City Association website is a good model, with 25% dedicated to prospective businesses, reports for businesses that both serve existing businesses and show incoming businesses valuable information and 50% events.

Currently, the City site has no section for prospective businesses or prospective residents.

To assist with bring more residents, I would also recommend having website space dedicated to available residential information and/or links to residential opportunities.

#2.  Refocus our Development

Instead on focusing on development projects that require building, our first step should be

  1. retaining the businesses we want to keep and
  2. attracting businesses we want to attract to the business space we already have.

This is less expensive, more effective and easier to show progress in a shorter amount of time.

The RES advisors offered a cautionary note to a focus on developing new Class A office space:

With (a few exceptions), however, downtown Trenton has few large ground floor retail spaces suitable for occupancy.  Most storefronts range in size from 1,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet.

The Trenton Downtown Association and the City of Trenton must first focus its attention on encouraging the renovation and retenating of currently vacant retail spaces.  (Emphasis mine).

Source: RES Advisors 2004 draft report

#3.  Develop Incentives for Attractor Businesses

City, DANTH and the Washington DC revitalization engineers understand the importance of attention paid to “funky, hip” retail amenities that employers see as vital to attract their workforce.  Residential attraction experts also say that these attractor businesses are important to attract new residents

  • “To bring in office-based businesses, the City (of Trenton) recommends …Retail, personal service and entertainment amenities for workers.”  Source: The City of Trenton Housing and Economic Development Downtown Master Plan
  • The DANTH report lists key attractors for office tenants in general, which includes a “compact, multi-functional activity area, where one can easily walk from home to work, to restaurants, to boutiques, to coffee houses, to art galleries, to the movies, etc.”   DANTH is one of the premier downtown revitalization experts in the US.  Over the past 30 years, DANTH has worked with big cities and small towns, urban centers and rural communities, from Pasadena, CA to Meredith, NH.  They scripted guidelines for downtown growth.
  • The Brookings Institution recognizes that it is small funky retail and restaurants that attract both residents and employees, and that jobs follow employees.  They outline ‘value latching” as a way to preserve the funky retail and artists that made a downtown exciting, but might get priced out as rent go up.
  • When the strategy for downtown Albuquerque was being crafted, for example, a senior executive from Sandia National Laboratory spend many hours volunteering in the process.  However, the laboratory –employing 5,000 scientists, engineers, and professional mangers—is located five miles from downtown.  When asked why he spent so much time on the downtown strategy, he replied, “If Albuquerque does not have a vibrant, hip downtown, I do not have a chance of recruiting or retaining the twenty-something software engineers that are the life’s blood of the laboratory.  Source: Turning around Downtown.  Brookings Institution

When Classics was recruited for downtown, TDA had a targeted plan (it knew it wanted a bookstore) and it had incentives targeted to small boutique business (a matching façade grant and a co-op opportunity).  Neither of these things are currently present.

While the City’s Master Plan recognizes that “….Trenton’s marketing effort should focus on retailers that fit the configuration of space downtown (17)…” in terms of retail square footage, they have not applied to same logic to the incentives available.

The UEZ benefits often don’t motivate these important attractor businesses.

  • They tend to be owner operated.
  • Retail tends not to make large capital purchases.
  • 3.5% off sales tax adds no additional incentive for retail whose average purchases do not top $50.
  • The quality retail we want has good credit and can get a competitive loan.

Incentives that would be effective at bringing in the attractor businesses include façade grants, co-op opportunities and advertising co-ops that could also incent businesses to take part in staff training, city branding initiatives and other city programs.

#4.  Customer Friendly City Hall

Brokers also reported that City of Trenton inspectors lack the flexibility or discretion to work with tenants so that stores can be renovated and opened in a timely manner.  These limitations most likely result in few capable, established retailers pursuing space in downtown Trenton when there are other alternatives available to them.

Source: RES Advisors 2004 draft report

Anecdotal information from developers and businesses also suggest that navigating the start-up process through City Hall is not as easy as it could be.

A streamlined building and renovation process is one of the things White Plains identifies as the reason for their redevelopment success.

Source: Model Campaigns for Economic Development.

City Hall needs to be more customer friendly, both for existing businesses and prospective businesses.

  • Inspections needs to be properly staffed and streamlined.
  • The website needs to be geared towards prospective businesses.
  • A prospective business “How To Start Your Business in Trenton” checklist needs to be developed.

#5.  Gateway Plan

The gateway points into the city are people’s first impression of the city.  The tracks along the rail line into Trenton are bordered by trash three feet deep.  The Calhoun Bridge entrance greets people coming into Trenton with a large vacant building.  Stockton and Perry are also uninviting.  A Gateway Plan should be enacted by the city to address all points of egress.

#6.  Footprint of state

“The State’s dominance of the downtown Trenton office market makes it difficult for private sector firms to find top-quality space in move-in condition, should a firm want to relocate or expand.”

Source: RES Advisors 2004 draft report

“…(T)he operation of food service facilities in State of New Jersey office buildings in Downtown Trenton is resulting in a potential economic loss for private businesses, the City of Trenton and the State of New Jersey.  The total dollar amount of the loss (in 1991) may approximate as much as $7,524,479 per year based on the findings of the impact study.  And, a potential opportunity to open as many as 21 new retail businesses in the Downtown is being missed.”

Source: Hyett Palma State Food Service Facility Impact Study

City Hall needs to make the effort to establish good relations with state agencies.

#7.  Vacant Property Registration Free Program

Vacant properties deter development, are unsightly at the entry points of the city and promote loitering, vagrancy, drug use, and prostitution.

In Wilmington DE, the Mayor asked the Department of Licenses and Inspections to study the procedures and staff-hours involved in the code enforcement of vacant properties.  It was obvious to all involved that the $25 yearly vacant registration fee did not come close to covering the cost of monitoring, citing and prosecuting property owners.

The Vacant Property Registration Fee program that grew out of the new legislation set vacant registration fees based on the total number of years a property is vacant, regardless of varying ownership over time.  The fee schedule is $500 for one year, $1,000 for two years, $2,000 for years three and four, $3,500 for years five through nine, and $5,000 for 10 years, with $500 added for every year over 10.  The program also allows fee waivers which give property owners one year to rehabilitate, sell, or demolish their properties.  The one-time, one-year waivers are intended to encourage renovations to be completed in a timely manner.

In 2005, the program collected $446,000 in fees.  The estimated 2006 collection was expected to be $662,000.  In 2005, the 380 vacant buildings, out of 1,528, became occupied, 217 were sold to new owners and 16 were demolished.

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