EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Newly elected Mayor Brad Cohen offered a "State of the Township" address as part of the regular council meeting on Monday night, discussing the current state of East Brunswick's programs, departments and plans for forward movement.
Cohen returned to election themes of re-visioning the role of business in the community, especially on the Route 18 corridor, home of both new construction and unoccupied eyesores.
Cohen began by describing East Brunswick's current financial state -- the budget process was also initiated at this meeting -- and the degree to which taxes are impacted by their primary base in the residential community, which has seen a steady rise in property values over the past four years. The mayor cited the township's AA+ bond rating and complete fulfillment of tax obligations.
"The economic health of our community will rest on how we redevelop, rezone, reuse, repurpose or re-green existing properties that are non-performing, " said Cohen, suggesting that lower taxes could result from increasing commercial ratables in town. Later on in his address, he prioritized the need for East Brunswick to, "Stop the continued dependence on residential property taxes and try to give residents some relief." Cohen added the statistic, "At almost 80 percent, residents of East Brunswick are contributing to almost all of the tax base through residential property taxes."
Cohen then praised the work of the Planning and Engineering Department and the improvements made to Church Lane with funds from the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund. He also cited the smooth execution of building contracts and the facilitation of permits for the Park Chateau as a model for forward movement in encouraging growth in the township.
"2016 saw a $10 million increase in the value of construction," noted Cohen, who listed several new businesses that have opened recently and acknowledging more that will open in 2017.
He praised several other departments, including the East Brunswick Police Department and the Opiate Outreach Program.
Listing needs as the township moves to improve financially, Cohen said that East Brunswick must, " Redevelop large parts of the commercial corridors to attract millennials. This means experienced-based shopping where there are walkable, mixed residential communities with outdoor, non-chain restaurants, music/art/culture. These communities must be close to the transit center and must feature easy access to major roadways." Experience-based shopping, according to Forbes, addresses the growing need for experiences - dining, traveling, music - by young consumers, contrasting the prior purpose of mall shopping which was to acquire goods.
The Mayor continued, "We need to re-energize our small businesses that we still have, so that they can be active participants helping to drive and support the redevelopment changes we propose." The designation of Route 18 South between the NJ Turnpike and Ferris Street as an "area in need of redevelopment" would allow for some incentives to preserve existing businesses.
"We need to continue to support our schools as they still remain a key attraction and will become even more important as millennials have children and look to home buying. The needs of millennials will remain the same as those before them - the need for good schools, a safe community, and good geography," said Cohen of the need to maintain the quality of the East Brunswick Schools, recently named 67th in the nation.
Having completed the report on the status quo and the goals for the future, Cohen then moved on to enumerate some initiatives that will drive change. The first of these would be the "Shop East Brunswick" program, which was also the subject of many conversations during the election. SEB is a rewards/tax credit program that supports local merchants and encourages local shopping, dining, construction, professional services, and entertainment.
The Mayor next described his proposal to hire a full-time Economic Development Officer to support facilitate commercial growth in the township by " walking each new merchant/business through the Planning/Engineering/Construction process." Additionally, Cohen hopes to "reignite" the EB Business Alliance/Chamber of Commerce.
The township Redevelopment Committee may be able to present plans this summer for the largely unoccupied malls that formerly housed Loehmann's and The Wiz, as well as the former Wonder Bread bakery on Tices Lane. Cohen stressed that it was essential to change to a "customer service orientation" when it came to attracting new businesses so that projects proceed as planned and open on time.
The overriding idea of the speech was vision - the vision to see the needs of the future and to take a second look at how what East Brunswick has can be turned into what East Brunswick needs.
*Cohen's address was part of a regular meeting which will be reported on later this week by TAP into East Brunswick.