RARITAN, NJ - There is an expectation of continued economic advancement in Raritan in 2019, according to Mayor Charles McMullin during his annual state of the borough address at Wednesday’s reorganization meeting.
McMullin spoke during his speech of the suburbanization trends in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an investment in the National Interstate Highway network, with unexpected impacts for Raritan as several highways traveled through the borough itself. That trend, he said, lasted for decades, but started to drop off in 2010.
“Fortunately, the economic hollowing out of downtowns in Raritan and other well-located boroughs is over and economic revitalization is increasingly occurring,” he said.
McMullin said that over the years, the borough has seen a resurgence in residential and other properties, with the luxury housing complex on Orlando Drive that replaced the former Middlesex Chemical; the Federal Steel property on Route 202 that became Stone Bridge; the recent expansion of LabCorp.; the demolition of the Gateway Motel to make way for Quick Chek; and new businesses coming to the downtown along Somerset Street and the adjacent roads.
“It’s obvious that Raritan has entered a new era that promises its revitalization,” he said. “In 2019, we will continue to experience growth that has been germinating over the past decade. It is my observation that Raritan is experiencing a renaissance, and we must plan carefully.”
Part of the planning, McMullin said, will be in the area of transportation, with a strong emphasis on pedestrians and cyclists. The process, he said, began in 2017 with the installation of speed humps along Bell and Sherman avenues, followed in 2018 by a four-way stop intersection and new one-way street to improve pedestrian and bike safety.
Now, for 2019, the borough is looking to prepare a coordinated and comprehensive Safe Pedestrian and Bike element of the master plan, and are also looking to use significant grant funds from the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority for technical assistance to develop an economic development and redevelopment plan in creating a more sustainable and walkable community.
The borough also received a $1 million grant last cycle for improvements to the NJ Transit rail station to the riverfront through a Transportation Alternatives Program grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation
In late 2018, McMullin said, the borough entered into an agreement with the county for a park along the north bank of the Raritan River, south of Orlando Drive and extending from Route 206 to the existing park area near the Basilone Bridge.
In addition, McMullin said, the county and Duke Farms have entered into an agreement for an improved bike and pedestrian pathway connecting the Nevius Street Bridge to the north gate of Duke Farms. It is expected to be completed in 2019.
“These initiatives are about quality of life for our residents and workforce,” he said.
McMullin said the borough saw a number of planned projects come to fruition in 2018, including maintaining a stable tax rate, starting the planning process for new police and fire facilities on the former Washington School property; and a plan for a new Department of Public Works building about 2.5 miles away from the Basilone Bridge.
Also in 2018, McMullin said, the borough saw a great deal of construction, with work at LabCorp, block 81 and Johnson & Johnson, although these large projects are not expected to be added to the tax base until 2020.
“What this means is that revenue growth from construction is deminimus for 2019,” he said.
In addition, McMullin said, the region experienced record rainfall in 2018, which has increased the sewer charges by about $300,000 over the estimated 2018 charges.
“This is an immediate economic hardship as we enter 2019,” he said. “Please be aware that we are not experiencing this alone. Our neighboring towns are proportionally in a similar predicament regarding sewer charges.”
With this and other expenses, the borough will have to work hard to maintain stable municipal taxes, McMullin said. And, he said, with the loss of construction revenue this year and the increased sewer costs, 2019 is not the year for new unfunded initiatives.
“Based upon work from our tax assessor, we will experience, in 2020, significant additions to our tax base,” he said. “As a consequence, we need to postpone new unfunded initiatives until the 2020 budget period when, without resorting to a tax increase, we will have an availability of funds.”
McMullin said, however, that there are improvements planned for the borough in 2019, with the use of more than $2.2 million in grants.
“As we begin 2019, we have available construction funds in excess of $1.2 million, as well as economic planning grants of $150,000,” he said.
In addition, McMullin said, the borough is looking ahead to the potential revitalization of the Raritan Mall, following the departure of Stop & Shop and a number of other stores there. A bank took possession of the property because of mortgage non-payments, and, in October 2018, it entered into an agreement with a significant third party group of investors to address its own financial issues.
“I am hopeful the bank and its employees are now able to refocus attention from survival as an ongoing concern to pursuing businesses to locate or, if appropriate, purchase the Raritan Mall,” he said. “It has been difficult to see this important area of our community virtually vacant. We look forward to working with the bank as well as prospective renters or purchasers.”
Also at the reorganization meeting, councilman Zachary Bray was sworn in for his second term, and Joyce Melitsky was sworn in for her first term, after both were elected to the council in November.
“I want to thank everyone who helped us get here,” Bray said.
“We want Raritan to realize its potential, and look forward to working with the council and public to do just that,” Melitsky added.
Councilman Don Tozzi was unanimously chosen to serve as council president for the second year.
McMullin said they are looking forward to the year ahead, and thanked those who aided the borough in 2018.
“We are all people, and people make things happen,” he said. “Simply put, the progress would have been impossible without my colleagues on the governing body, our dedicated municipal workers and our many many volunteers, our professional consultants and lawyers, and importantly our NJ elected officials and our very capable Somerset County colleagues.”