As many local residents are aware, if the Courthouse Square Redevelopment project proceeds as planned it will replace several historic buildings on Flemington’s Main Street with a modern urban development complex.  One ongoing question concerning this project is ‘who’s moving in?’ In an effort to answer and expound upon this question I would first point to mayor Phil Greiner’s own words in an open letter leading up to last month’s Republican primary election:

“Courthouse Square housing is designed for “millennials” and/or empty nesters who would like to stay close to Flemington. The impact of school-aged children is negligible and school enrollment in our district has fallen dramatically.”

As a candidate for Flemington borough council, I cannot let these statements from the mayor go unchallenged. Let me begin by stating that as a millennial I value historic downtowns and buildings that have been repurposed while maintaining their historic charm. It adds a feeling and an experience that cannot be reproduced or replaced today. In fact, when I go to visit towns that have retained their historic character (e.g. Pennington, Hopewell, Frenchtown, Lambertville, Clinton, amongst others) it is not to visit any one place in particular but for the general aura of the place itself. You could call it a different feeling or sensation but there is something unique to each of these towns that keeps you wanting more. If I had to define it in one word, I think it would be: identity. Each of these towns have managed to define themselves and it is that very definition which makes them stand out to those areas around them as destinations. Flemington, as the state’s second largest historic district, has the potential to surpass these nearby towns if only it can find its way through this ongoing identity crisis. So, if asked whether or not I as a millennial would like to live in the intended Courthouse Square project with its newly constructed buildings, modern conveniences and likely open floor plans, I would happily prefer my 1875 Victorian with is creaky floors and sloping ceilings because it just feels like home.

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Most in my generation are not so fortunate to have this choice however. New Jersey leads the nation in millennials living with their parents (47%) and Hunterdon County tops the state with 61% living at home.[1] Reasons for this are complex and varied but not likely to go away any time soon.[2] One leading reason is millennials have 300% more student debt than their parents.[3] For the 2017-2018 school year, average tuition for a public university was $9,970 for in-state students. Compare those rates to that of a private school, which averaged $35,260.[4] It should be noted that the university that has pledged to be a part of the Courthouse Square project is private. Faced with these high tuitions it now takes millennials 4,459 hours of minimum wage work to get the same education it took the boomer generation 306 hours to obtain.[5] What is more, when we are fortunate enough to get jobs they do not come with the same job security, benefits, and pay as prior generations, as corporations have gradually shifted risk from the company to the workforce. As a result of these and other factors, we are about half as likely to own a home as young adults were in 1975.[6] One-in-five of us live in poverty.[7] And, based on current trends many of us will not be able to retire until we are 75.[8]

 

Despite these circumstances, Curtis Leeds in an article written for TAPinto, cites nearby resident James Hughes, widely recognized as an expert on demographics, housing, and regional economics, that those millennials that are able to overcome these obstacles and get out of their parents’ homes are shifting from places like Hunterdon County to places like Hudson County and NYC. Hughes forecasts that their preferences will change, “but if they do come to Hunterdon, they will want the “experiential environments,” that they favor, not the standard suburb.”[9]

 

So, as a millennial am I alone in my preferences? What does the rest of my generation favor? Results from an American Express, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Edge Research survey provide some useful insight:

 

  • Nearly all (97%) of the nation’s largest and most diverse generation appreciate the value of historic preservation.
  • One-in-three (36%) are preservation fans and have taken action in support of the cause.
  • One-in-two millennials view historic preservation as important through the lens of engaging in authentic experiences (52%), preserving a sense of community (52%) and creatively re-using structures (51%).
  • More than half of millennials (54%) are interested in historic preservation as a means to save the places that define us as Americans.
  • 53% of millennials view historic preservation as a way to protect the unique, cultural wealth and diversity of communities.
  • Nearly one-in-two (44%) prefer living in a neighborhood with historic character.
  • When sightseeing, three-in-four (71%) millennials enjoy exploring the history of an area.
  • Two-thirds (67%) are interested in bunking at historic hotels.
  • 22% prefer living in a neighborhood with historic character versus 14% living a new subdivision with modern amenities.
  • More than three-quarters (80%) of millennials would rather spend money at businesses supporting efforts to preserve and protect buildings, architecture and neighborhoods over those that don’t.
  • Millennials are twice as likely to prefer shopping or noshing in historic downtowns (52%) and in places with historic appeal (49%), over malls and planned commercial districts (26%) or recently constructed places (22%).
  • More than half (58%) would head to a happy hour in a historic building.
  • Half of millennials would like, follow or share historic places on social media (53%) or cast their vote online to choose a historic site to receive funding (59%).[10]

 

These results can be summarized by a quote from the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

 

“The report reflects what we’ve seen in cities from Los Angeles to Buffalo to Houston – that millennials prefer to live, work and play in neighborhoods with historic buildings. The revitalization of many urban communities is being driven in large part by the influx of young people seeking authentic experiences and places with character that are found in historic neighborhoods.”[11]

 

While there seems to be some discrepancy between what millennials want and what they will get with current plans for the redevelopment project, the other portion of what the mayor said is equally problematic: “The impact of school-aged children is negligible and school enrollment in our district has fallen dramatically.” Pew research applies the term millennial to those people between the ages of 22 and 36 in the current year. While millennials today are having children later in life than their parents, ages 22-36 are the years when most couples begin starting a family. So to say that the Courthouse Square project is designed for millennials but the impact of school-aged children will be negligible is untenable. Perhaps what the mayor intended to mean was that by the time this project is completed millennials’ children will already be in college or careers, so we will not have to worry about any additional enrollment in our schools.

 

Nevertheless, assuming millennials do defy local, regional, and national demographic trends, assuming they overcome the systemic, institutionalized challenges working against them, and assuming they ignore their own interests in historic downtowns, one has to also assume many will be starting families and there will be an impact on school enrollment. Ordinarily, costs associated with an increase in enrollment would be offset with additional school tax revenue. The proposed PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) for the Courthouse Square redevelopment project, however, absolves the developer from paying the school tax. The tax burden is thus shifted from the developer onto school district residents. In effect, as the number of school age children goes up in Courthouse Square so will property taxes. This should be of concern given that Flemington residents’ percent income that goes to school taxes is already three percent higher than the average (five percent) New Jersey homeowner contributes from their paychecks to public schools,[12] while the borough has the lowest median income ($58,401) in the county.[13]

 

While this might not be a concern to our mayor or council members Brooke Warden and Mark Hain, who have firmly supported the redevelopment project, it has become a concern for NJ lawmakers. Last month Senate Bill 1701 passed unanimously in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The bill would require both the town and developer to produce their own cost-benefit analysis on how the PILOT agreement would impact the local tax revenue, particularly school funding.[14] Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who supports the bill, states that: “The cost-benefit analysis will show how abatements affect local and county entities.”[15] This bill follows Assembly Bill 3969 which would require tax-exempt developers to rework the funding distribution to include money earmarked for school taxes.[16] But, all this seems to beg the question: If the impact of school age children really is “negligible,” as the mayor claims, then why the need for a Payment In Lieu of Taxes?

 

In closing, as a millennial I ask that we not demolish our history to make way for development. There is room for both in Flemington. New development and our historic past can exist side-by-side affording our town the best of both worlds: housing for millennials in a historic town. Other towns have done it, so can we. As a Flemington Borough council candidate I ask that we stop making assumptions and start basing policies and plans on data and evidence. Without the latter Flemington may move forward but in the wrong direction. And lastly, as a resident I demand that we not be asked to subsidize a private developer’s construction project if the costs to us as taxpayers outweigh the benefits.

 

Millennials are expected to outnumber boomers in 2019.[17] Where they decide to create their futures remains in question. But, if Flemington can refocus its vision, if it can find its own identity, and if we build it, I predict they will come.

 

 

[1] “‘Sprawl Withdrawal’ a Challenge for Hunterdon, Expert Says,” accessed through tapinto.net

[2] To understand why so many of my generation live at home, I recommend reading Michael Hobbes’ article: “FML: Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” found in the Huffington Post, accessed through https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/poor-millennials-print/

[3] The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2013. Calculations based on average per-student borrowing in 1980 and 2010, found in “FML: Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” accessed through https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/poor-millennials-print/

[4] “Average Cost of College Statistics for 2018,” accessed through studentloanhere.com.

[5] National Center for Education Statistics. Calculations based on tuition for four-year public universities from 1973-1976 and 2003-2006, Ibid.

[6] U.S. Census, young adults ages 24-35, Ibid.

[7] U.S. Census, young adults ages 18-34, Ibid.

[8] Projection for the class of 2015 based on a NerdWallet analysis of federal data, Ibid.

[9] “‘Sprawl Withdrawal’ a Challenge for Hunterdon, Expert Says,” accessed through tapinto.net

[10] “Millennials Prefer Revitalized Historic Areas Not Malls,” accessed through moderncities.com

[11] Ibid.

[12] “School taxes are hammering people in these N.J. towns. See how yours stacks up,” accessed through nj.com

[13] “The Poorest Town in all 21 N.J. Counties,” accessed through nj.com

[14] “Lawmakers seek to boost oversight of PILOT program,” accessed through njbiz.com

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation,” accessed through pewresearch.org