PLAINFIELD, NJ - Get to know Carlos Sanchez, the City of Plainfield's Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development, conducted for the Mayor's Newsletter.
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MN: Mayor's Newsletter; CS: Carlos Sanchez
Hello, Director Sanchez - I know you're extremely busy so thank you for taking the time to chat with the Mayor's Newsletter.
MN: First, I'm sure our readers would like to know - How long have you been with the City of Plainfield?
CS: I'm now in my fourth year, I started in January of 2014.
MN: Was this your first time working with the City of Plainfield?
CS: Yes, this was my first time, before that I was with the City of Elizabeth for 11 years with the Economic Development Team.
MN: Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
CS: I was the Director of Financial Programs and Development for the Elizabeth Development Company which is the non-profit arm of the City of Elizabeth and all the Economic Development, and business support went through that entity. I started there running the lending program and doing technical assistance workshops for the small business community. Then I was promoted to the position of project manager, and after that, I became one of the Directors of the company.
MN: Is there any difference in what you're doing here versus what you did there?
CS: It's different in the sense that there I was working for a non-profit so there was a buffer between us and the City when it came to red tape and [politics. The number one client of that non-profit was the City of Elizabeth. Even though we had to have meetings with Council Members and other elected officials, the politics and negotiations was driven by the City.
MN: but the function was similar?
CS: Yes, the function was similar. Just like we do here; we go out and sell the city, and we try to bring in investors/developers. Once we do that, we stay with those developers to make sure they get the necessary approvals and support required to complete the projects through to the end. We also try to support them with marketing with the overall focus of improving the quality of life of all residents. I would say there it was the micro and here it is a macro approach to development as we focus on the entire city, there it was mainly the UEZ area only. .
MN: You came to Plainfield at a time when the City was transitioning. I know there are many processes you put in place that didn't exist before. What kind of challenges did you have?
CS: I think the biggest challenge we've had in these first four (4) years is ensuring we all are looking at "economic development" as a whole instead of a "project by project" approach. Economic Development entails a lot more than just "new buildings', it includes the community, all divisions within City Hall and of course the support of all our elected officials. . Economic Development is "team" effort and we all must be able to work together to achieve positive results that benefit the entire City.
We have our hands in many areas even though they don't directly fall under the umbrella of Economic Development. When Public Works does a great job, it makes our job easier when trying to sell the city. When the Police and Fire do a great job, it helps us in attracting new investors to a safe community. A good relationship between the community and a city is important and extremely valuable, as developers want to see that everyone is working together to improve the community. It's easy to sell a site, a location, and a concept; but the harder sale is selling the city.
One of the biggest problems we had coming in was ensuring that developers and investors knew that our elected officials and the community were ready to welcome them in and were ready to be partners in the overall development. It was extremely important for the City to demonstrate that we understood the process of moving projects forward as well as putting incentive mechanics in place to support the partnerships. , In the beginning, I sensed that the attitude was a bit combative more of a city vs. developer's kind of thing. They would say things like "they're just coming to take over the city, make money on the city, not employ our people" and we had to change that mentality. But now it's more collaborative. It's like a partnership with the potential developers. If they're successful, we're successful.
Another major hurdle was dealing with the reputation that Plainfield used to carry. From the developer's perspective, they were reluctant to come into Plainfield because the perception was that our approval process was too lengthy, complicated and unfriendly. While that remains a work in progress, we have improved that process and reputation tremendously.
So those were the biggest challenges that we had.
MN: What was your strategy for tackling these challenges?
CS: The first year 2014 I focused more on trying to understand the problems than selling Plainfield. I looked at the City's perspective as well as the Developers perspective. I spent a lot of time just trying to understand, "why not Plainfield?" for the last ten (10) years. We worked with the staff on one on one basis in understanding processes and changing the mindset, hearing their side of the story and understanding their concerns and impact of their actions for overall development.
The other thing is that we couldn't do it alone, so selling at TEAM EFFORT has become a major focus and strategy We had to understand how the volunteer boards and commissions play significant role into our overall strategy and how the different changes in the market can affect development. There were certain things we had lost that was not going to come back. We were not going to get the Plainfield of fifty (50) years ago but instead we are getting a new revitalized City that incorporates all of the great assets we still have such as our great real estate stock, our historic districts, our diversity and most importantly the quality of our residents.
MN: What to date has been your biggest accomplishment?
CS: Well it's not an accomplishment for me but for the team - it's always a team effort. That has been to attract the number of different developers that we partner with.. When I came on we were only had four (4) or five (5) active developers and now thanks to the effort of our entire team we enjoy have relationships with over fifteen (15) developers looking a different major projects. To have some many developers interested in coming to our City is a significant milestone. Our team has the unconditional support of our Mayor who is always available and willing to discuss new ideas and initiatives with an open mind. He is always interested in discussion new concepts that will improve the quality of life for all our residents.
MN: What spells success for you, what is the ultimate vision?
CS: We have long term and short term visions for the City of Plainfield. Ultimately, we would like to see the entire City redeveloped with a mix of projects that brings about services, jobs and good benefits to the residents of the City, but we concentrated on the two train stations. We went after the low hanging fruit which would be anything in the vicinity of the train stations; our thought process was that if we are successful in building around the train stations that the rest of the city would continue to get built, obviously we always have to be mindful of market changes and the needs of our very diverse community. We have about sixty (60) projects in process at various stages right now, and approximately thirty-five to forty (35-40) of those projects are around the train stations. We are concentrating on a model that has been successful in other towns which includes mixed-use development that promotes the idea that Plainfield is a place where you can live, work, and play and grow your family. I am a firmed believer that we don't have to re-invent the wheel, and I will gladly give credit where it is due, we only need to duplicate and adjust the model to Plainfield's needs. If it's working elsewhere, why not here? That's been our focus for the past three and a half years (3 1/2).
Looking ahead, we will continue to make sure that the two (2) train stations are improved and developed with news streetscapes, new sidewalks, new restaurants, etc. We feel that once we accomplish that the rest of the town will continue to be developed. At some point, we will need to slow the redevelopment down and make sure that we can maintain the quality of redevelopment we've put in place.
MN: Other than the obvious Development, building structures, etc., what is the other critical component for Economic Development?
CS: As I said since we're competing with areas like Route 22 that we don't have, and New Brunswick which has a Johnson and Johnson and a University - which we don't have. We need to understand that small businesses are our bread and butter. We may be able to attract some franchises, but it would be extremely difficult to attract major box retail stores as they typically look for proximity to major highways, such as Route 22 and 18. So, we have to spend time making sure that our small business owners have all the tools for them to be successful. We do seminars ranging from legal aspects of running a business to seminars on accounting, QuickBooks, marketing, etc. because we need to ensure that they stay open.
Another significant component of Economic Development is marketing. We need to ensure that when the projects come to fruition that we have people moving in and taking advantage of its location and whatever else it has to offer. So, marketing is critical for the City of Plainfield. We need to change the perception that exists. Plainfield is a great place to live, work and have fun. .
We're tackling that in two ways; firstly, convincing our residents that Plainfield is a new place to be and to shop and also attracting new residents to come in and say "this is the place that we want to be" so it's all about re-branding the city. And we have a lot to offer, Plainfield is an urban/suburban city. Such a great mixture of both exists here, from the historic districts to the museums, to our open spaces and high real estate stock, so we have a lot to offer, but we just need to change the perception.
MN: So, tell us about yourself on personal level
CS: Well firstly I think it's pretty apparent that I wasn't born here - I'm originally from Colombia, South America, I came here when I was twelve (12) years old as an immigrant with my family. There were five (5) kids, and my dad worked two (2), three (3) jobs to support us and send us to school. When we first came, we were living in Elizabeth, and I went through the public school system there. I was blessed to receive a soccer scholarship and went to College in Tennessee. It was a shock there; I was the only the third Latino to attend that College and here I was with an accent. I stood out, but it was a good four (4) years, and then I came back to Elizabeth, and when I came back I started out in finance -working with a lot of the local banks, always concentrating on commercial lending. Then I moved into small business loans and then Economic Development where I still am today.
MN: Are you married? Kids?
CS: Yes, I've been married for twenty-five (25) years. I have two children, my son is twenty-two (22) and in his final year in College thank God, and my daughter is twenty (20) going on twenty-eight (28), and she's in her third year of College. All my career accomplishments must be credited to my personal Lord and Savior who has blessed me with a great family both at home and my church.
MN: Thank you for your time we think you're doing a great job and wish you all the best in your continued career.