ISELIN, N.J. – Expressing the chapter’s support of any legislation that supports economic growth, “our 2015 priorities include securing sustainable funding for transportation infrastructure and serving as a resource for municipal officials in the adaptive re-use of obsolete properties,” said Michael G. McGuinness, CEO of NAIOP New Jersey, the commercial real estate development association. The forum was the chapter’s 2015 Public Policy Symposium at the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel in Iselin.
Setting the tone for the keynote speaker, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, “Trenton has made great strides, but more needs to be done” said McGuinness. “On the key issue of stabilizing funding for investments to our transportation infrastructure given its critical role in moving cargo from the port to consumers, we support Senator Sweeney’s fight on transportation funding.”
“Senator Sweeney is an inspiration in Trenton,” said NAIOP New Jersey President Clark Machemer of The Rockefeller Group. “We support his goals and vision regarding transportation. His policies inspire confidence in our industry.”
“New Jersey has a lot going for it,” said Sweeney. For logistics in particular, he invoked the long-time real estate adage, “location, location, location.” Conceding that government has been “dysfunctional,” he referenced a proposed transportation master plan and said that the key is not to just spend money, but to “spend money in a smart way.”
Noting that he has been at odds with the Governor over everything from transportation funding to the cancellation of the Hudson River tunnel project, “New Jersey’s financial troubles right now are because we’re not tackling the big issues,” Sweeney said. The result has been the slow growth the state is experiencing, in his view.
Regionalism on transportation improvements is another issue he addressed: “Regions of the state are being pitted against each other, and nothing gets done,” Sweeney said. “Once again, we need an overall plan. We also don’t want a two- or three-year solution to the transportation infrastructure – we need a long-term solution.
“There is a real possibility that the Transportation Trust Fund will run out of money – we have to get real with this discussion,” Sweeney said. “We’re not settling for a band-aid; businesses want predictability.”
Noting that he and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto are “on the same page” on this issue: “We have a plan. We need a partner,” he said, referencing the Governor’s office. “We need to focus on priorities, and transportation is a priority.”
WORKING WITH PARTNERS
The ensuing panel discussion focused on developing and deploying a right-skilled workforce, and the working with partners theme provided an undercurrent. According to Michael Chrobak of Choose New Jersey, his agency is charged with business retention and attraction of new businesses from out-of-state. “We work closely with companies, and over the past four years have reached out to 19,000 businesses and currently have 350 projects underway.”
From a workforce standpoint, “we are focused on seven key industries,” said Dr. Aaron Fichtner of the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development. “Our efforts to build a skilled workforce are talent-driven. We talk to employers to understand these industries, and we work with schools to integrate curriculum.”
One example was a metal fabrication cluster that had emerged in Central New Jersey, but “they couldn’t find enough skilled workers,” said Fichtner. “We worked to find training and to prepare a skilled workforce for this cluster.”
And while logistics is important, manufacturing is also in play in the Meadowlands. “We’re seeing a resurgence in manufacturing, with upgrades in technology,” said Jim Kirkos of the Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce.
His region is also a magnet for visitors, of course: “The impact of being a destination is remarkable,” he said, noting the sports complex and other attractions. Kirkos is also an advocate for a casino in the Meadowlands, which, when combined with a convention center, the American Dream retail complex, new hotels and more, “could create the world’s largest destination.”
Returning to the subject of transportation, it is one that not only impacts the movement of goods, i.e., logistics, but also moving people around. Mary K. Murphy of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority noted the impact of the millenials’ and empty nesters’ lack of interest in owning cars and eschewing a suburban lifestyle for an urban lifestyle. As a result, “transit-oriented development is an important trend, and we’re focusing on how to capture that.”
Part of the effort involves “land use changes in some of the older suburban communities,” Murphy said. “Where job growth is occurring in those areas, the issue is getting people to their jobs,” she said, noting clusters of bus transportation. One solution came out of efforts by the Greater Mercer TMA (Transportation Management Association), where “Amazon created a shuttle bus program to get people to their jobs at their new facility in Robbinsville. It’s a major success story.”
Municipal mindset – i.e., home rule – was addressed by Dr. Gerard Scharfenberger of the New Jersey Office for Planning Advocacy, and former Mayor of Middletown Twp. Conceding that decisions are still made by local planning boards, and towns continue to struggle with the two percent cap on property taxes, “they are becoming more receptive when we approach them with an initiative that would require a change in zoning.”
The empty office campuses, once again, have something to do with that receptiveness, and there is new willingness to make concessions to foster repurposing, in his view. He cited the mixed-use redevelopment of the former Bell Labs in Holmdel, reborn as Bell Works by Somerset Development.
“From the state level, the idea is not to run roughshod but use finesse to change the mindset, to get these properties back on the tax rolls,” said Scharfenberger.
“Projects like this are better done through a regional planning effort,” said Kirkos. “Regional planning must take place instead of home rule.”
“We are trying to get municipalities to think regionally, and we are seeing more cooperation, including shared services,” said Scharfenberger. “It’s difficult to change the thinking, but thinking regionally is almost a necessity, and we are finding municipalities becoming more receptive.”
Responding to a question from Machemer about what lies ahead, Kirkos noted the far-reaching impact of finding solutions for the aging transportation system. He urged a new look at the scrapped Hudson River tunnel project and stated that, “we need multiple options to satisfy density.”
From a practical standpoint for the everyday commuter, meanwhile, Murphy sees the day just ahead when all transportation information can be accessed by cell phone.
In the larger view, “we have to do something about costs – everything we do in this state is expensive,” said Scharfenberger. “To fund capital improvement, we have to find alternatives.”
“Public-private partnerships are the key,” said Kirkos.
“We have to think outside the box,” Chrobak concluded.