FAIR LAWN, NJ - While Jersey at large may be struggling to come back from the pandemic and its bludgeoning of the economy, the mayor said Fair Lawn is well-positioned financially and roaring back with residential and commercial development.
TAPinto, the borough's hyperlocal news source, along with the assistance of the Garden State Initiative, a non-partisan economic think tank, spoke to local leaders about taxes, the cost of living and the local economy on June 2. The discussion, moderated by Rebecca Greene (TAPinto Fair Lawn & Glen Rock Editor & Chief) turned out to be a lesson about a public/private partnership between the borough's government and several business-centric entities that are supported by taxpayer funds and volunteers.
"New Jersey was slow to come out of the last recession," Regina Egea, CEO and President of the Garden State Initiative, said, speaking to the cost of living statewide. "While taxes play a part in the cost of living for residents, things such as tolling and gas prices are items in the basket of the cost of living," and New Jersey is "at the top of the list" when it comes to high prices of common goods.
Fair Lawn Mayor Kurt Peluso said the League of Municipalities is reporting as many as 80% of the state's localities are stating they will have a budget shortfall coming out of covid-19.
"Fair Lawn is not in that position," Peluso said.
The mayor noted the borough has not increased taxes on the municipal side for four years.
"We're really fortunate here in Fair Lawn," he said. "We have a long term financial plan."
That plan includes a precarious balance of residential and commercial development.
Peluso said "so many" people want to move into the borough. And, despite losing Mondelez, the old Nabisco, as a manufacturer in the Route 208 industrial complex, Peluso said there has been a lot of interest from new businesses and/or tenants for the site.
Egea said there needs to be a balance of residents and businesses in any municipality, but each town has to figure out what that balance is for them.
That's been the 20-year challenge in Fair Lawn regarding the so-called Deals Property, where currently there is a proposal for 155 residential units mixed with retail space at the corner of Fair Lawn Avenue and Plaza Road.
President of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Abigail Katznelson said that as a local developer herself, she looks at all the positives in Fair Lawn and said it's not "rocket science" why people want to live here.
"There are three keys," Katznelson said. "Transit, demographics, and education."
The developer said her company's style of apartments, which are not meant for larger families, are more for young professionals who have not started a family and for empty-nesters who want to stay in the area but no longer want to take care of a house with property.
"Our tenants have what they want right here," she said. "Bars and restaurants, services they can walk to or get to quickly."
Another panelist, retired architect and Fair Lawn resident Allen Weitzman said his decision to stay in Fair Lawn after retirement was a choice for him and his wife.
While many people do leave for the south for many reasons, not the least of which is to escape steep property taxes, Weitzman said his reason to stay was easy: family.
Weitzman serves as a volunteer member of the EDC and said one of the important pieces of work the committee has produced over the last year has been developer guidelines.
"One size does not fit all in Fair Lawn," Weitzman said. "River Road is not like Broadway, Maple Avenue is not the same as Radburn."
The EDC plans to customize the guidelines for each district.
But local guidelines cannot compare to the amount of paperwork required by the state of New Jersey just to start a business, Egea said. And while rules and regulations are necessary, Egea said there's too much overlap from the state, to the county and on to the local level.
"Where's the added value," she asked. "I think we need to create a clean slate and look at these issues, make it easier to be here, to open business here."
Responding to the balancing act each municipality goes through with how much commercial versus how much residential development is best for a town, Peluso said ultimately his job is to listen to everyone.
"My responsibility is to take it all in," he said. "I appreciate it more when someone disagrees with me, so I can hear a different perspective."
Overall, the panelists agreed Fair Lawn is in a good place, and while there will be people who worry about overdevelopment or an increase of children that could outgrow the physical room in the schools, Peluso notes a positive by any measure: Fair Lawn's value has increased by $20 million in the last several years.
"Fair Lawn is growing, but at a good pace."