Anne LaBate, right, owner of Segal-LaBate Commercial Real Estate in Trenton, has come up with a new slogan to promote business in the city of Trenton: “Good for Revolutionaries.” The phrase calls to mind the history of the capital as the site of Washington’s first victory against the British, as well as its appeal to creative startup businesses that could use an urban location that’s not too expensive. LaBate wants people to think of Trenton as a city for mavericks and free thinkers, and appropriately enough, she is touting her slogan despite the fact that it not technically her job to promote economic development in Trenton.
LaBate has been a tireless booster for Trenton throughout her 20 years in the area, serving as a volunteer leader for many arts and nonprofit groups in the city, as well as the Trenton Downtown Association. Normally, a campaign to market the city would be the purview of the economic development office or a local chamber of commerce. But Labate made her new website, www.goodforrevolutionaries.com, on her own initiative.
“There have been massive cuts at City Hall,” she says. “The truth of the matter is that the economic development staff is bare bones. They don’t have the resources you would like them to have. So it’s up to the private sector, and we don’t have a big private sector. We’re a company town, and the company is the state government.”
On Wednesday, July 15, Trenton mayor Eric Jackson and Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association will speak at a MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce event at the Wyndham Garden Hotel on Lafayette Street from 8 to 10 a.m. Tickets are $25, $40 for nonmembers. A panel consisting of LaBate, along with Monique King Viehland, director of housing and economic development for Trenton, and former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, of Rosemont Properties, will discuss economic redevelopment in the city.
LaBate has long had an interest in city planning. She grew up in Amsterdam, New York, an old factory town near Albany, where her father was a union plumber and her mother worked for the telephone company. “It’s a little like Trenton, except when the factories closed and left, the state government wasn’t there,” she says. She moved to central New Jersey when she went to college at Rutgers, where she majored in city planning, and stayed there afterwards. She later got a master’s degree at New York University. She started out in the nonprofit arena in New Brunswick, but became interested in Trenton and its diverse architecture and population. In the 1990s, LaBate worked as an appraiser in Mercer County and later switched over to being a broker.
Now the fate of her business is tied up with that of the city. LaBate has several prominent downtown buildings for rent to commercial tenants, including an imposing building at the corner of West State and West Front streets that was built as a bank in the 1930s. LaBate says the kinds of historic buildings available in Trenton could be ideal locations for innovative, startup, and high tech companies that want to be in a city, but can’t afford the rents of New York or Philadelphia. She says a beautiful historic building — such as the bank — can serve as a calling card for visitors.
“We’re not for everybody,” LaBate says. “But we’ve always been good for revolutionaries.”
In promoting the city, LaBate must do battle with the perception that Trenton is dangerous. Many outsiders hear of Trenton’s street crime problem before they can see its arts scene or its enviable access to rail transportation. “I live in Trenton, I work in Trenton, and I don’t feel threatened,” LaBate says. “I don’t feel unsafe. I come and go as I please late at night. But then again, I’m not buying drugs and I’m not affiliated with a gang.”
LaBate blamed newspapers for blowing the crime problem out of proportion. (In fairness to the news media, there were 34 homicides in Trenton in 2014, including some drug related shootings that killed innocent bystanders.)
LaBate says she wants to get the word out about what the city has to offer, especially to young people who are, according to surveys, more likely to want to live in cities instead of the suburbs. She likes to mention that 300 trains travel to and from the city every day, the authentic restaurants downtown, the lively arts scene, and the many cultural events that take place there. LaBate herself has organized a series of 10 concerts this summer to add to the reasons to visit the city. She has also started her own business incubator (see story below.)
When thinking about how to market the city, LaBate remembers a conversation she once had with former New York mayor, and Trenton native, David Dinkins. Dinkins told LaBate that he would often shake hands with voters on the subway. In doing so, he would often get stuck in arguments with people who disagreed with some of his policies. He would try to persuade the person to change his or her mind and meanwhile dozens of possibly more receptive citizens would walk past. It was a more effective use of time to disengage quickly from the naysayers.
“You go after the people who are receptive,” LaBate says. “The ones who are receptive identify themselves as revolutionaries.” Trenton has a certain indie appeal that goes hand in hand with its dangerous reputation. It is a place for freewheeling, where the stakes are a bit lower, and where more experimentation is possible than in a more buttoned-down place. “We don’t have a Starbucks or manicured corporate parks,” she says. “We do have 300 trains a day and wonderful ethnic restaurants.”