EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Mayor Brad Cohen is an "analytical guy." So is Joe Criscuolo, the new Township Administrator. What's going on with own East Brunswick's redevelopment zone, the area between the New Jersey Turnpike Exit 9 on Route 18 South down to Ferris Street, requires analysis and perspective, too. Some problems and solutions are uniquely East Brunswick's, but some are the natural result of changing trends in suburban life, the use of retail space, the growth of "big-box" stores, and the costs of opening and running a small business anywhere. The mayor says he has a plan based on analysis.
Cohen is taking a team approach to addressing the current problems while also planning for growth and a new vision of East Brunswick for the future. Along with Criscuolo, who worked for many years for AT&T on Tower Boulevard and who has served as an Administrator for Aberdeen and Piscataway, Jonathan Sternesky was brought on-board to facilitate development in East Brunswick. Sternesky was recently hired to fill the newly-created Economic Development Officer position, which was approved by the Town Council in March. Outside consultants will be also be hired on an "as-needed" basis to assist in the process.
Additionally, Cohen said he has confidence in "the great people we already have working for East Brunswick" and he believes their dedication what will drive a "team" approach, as does the mayor's desire to engage in an "open discussion" with members of the Town Council.
The initial plan has three components: the "Shop EB" Program; supporting new and existing businesses; and expediting the construction and permit processes.
"Shop EB" is a key component of Cohen's agenda. As introducted by Councilman Michael Spadafino, Shop EB will provide tax rebates for local residents who shop/dine/use local businesses, as well as incentives for businesses to participate in the community-wide program. Cohen anticipates a June 1 start date for this program with the primary focus of "jump-starting an incentive to getting businesses to stay in the township."
Cohen noted that the tax rebates may not be "a huge amount" for individual residents, but may be enough to "hold off a tax increase." "We want to send a clear message to businesses that we want them to stay here," said Cohen. "This is a worthwhile endeavor to bring the business community together and to encourage structure and revive commerce."
The Township's economic team has been working on the implementation of Shop EB since its approval in February.
The renewed use and re-purposing of empty buildings in the redevelopment zone is one of Cohen's primary goals. He believes there are several avenues for bringing new businesses to town and encouraging current owners to invest in their own properties. Cohen cited the new large businesses that have already committed to East Brunswick, including Bar Louie, Verizon, Red Robin, Burlington, Aldi, and Home Goods. He also recognizes and supports the small businesses - ibby's, Afandina, Jersey Shore BBQ and M&M Bakery. He said that these establishments are also developing a following in town.
Cohen and his team will start with the locations which were formerly Loehmann’s Plaza, the Wonder Bread complex, and the GAP mall and all minimally-occupied locations within the redevelopment zone.
Cohen said the plan is to create “mixed-use” areas that provide retail shopping, dining, and residences that give “East Brunswick residents a chance to enjoy the community. Cohen added, “We have an intelligent population and an educated workforce” for whom he plans a “live-work-play environment” within the township.
The redevelopment team is determined to be forward-looking and to make East Brunswick a “millennial-friendly” place to live and work in an “urbanized suburb.” “The key is transportation,” he added.
Accordingly, the redevelopment plan includes a greater use of the two transportation centers already owned by East Brunswick and the creation a jitney/local trolley system to move residents within the township. Residents would save on parking and be able to access local businesses without moving their cars. “Tower Boulevard is a virtually land-locked location with little easy access to local businesses and restaurants," said Criscuolo.
The transportation plan would facilitate short trips to new multi-use properties as well as those to existing malls on Route 18.
Anticipating the needs and recognizing the lifestyle patterns of millennials is helping Cohen to drive advance redevelopment. The new plan provides for some new apartment/transitional residences, better transportation, community spaces for gatherings, and business incentives. "Later on, when young people have families and want to buy homes we hope they purchase homes here and take advantage of our great schools and the benefits that living in East Brunswick has to offer,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he plans to make more efficient use of technology to streamline the various permit processes. Under the new plan, there will be greater office automation with upgrades to computer systems. Inspectors will be able to use tablets and online forms to speed approvals and keep information current.
The East Brunswick Senior Center will get a technological “facelift,” too, according to Cohen and Criscuolo. Seniors who use the center will be issued key fobs to track attendance at a variety of activities, use of resources, and participation in classes so that they can be better served with data-driven program planning.
Criscuolo noted that the township budget and capital plan have been finished and approved, allowing for movement to begin on they mayor's initiatives.
Criscuolo also said he wants to get rid of those nasty potholes around town, too. He is eager to see the new “Infrared Asphalt Heater” at work. The Township Administrator sees “getting things done in a timely fashion” as the mark of effective government. “It’s all about the right team. That’s how you get what you want. People are successful when they share a vision.”
Cohen said he has set lofty goals for his administration in the first 100 days. He admits he has gone through a learning curve. “I am a surgeon. I see a problem and I want to fix it immediately. It doesn’t work that way with government. There are a lot of great people who work here. It’s encouraging to be able to work with them as a team.”
Cohen, who also holds a degree in Public Relations and Marketing, contends, “The grass is greener where you are.” Perhaps some of that green will revitalize Route 18 and line the pockets of East Brunswick residents.