Eric Jackson, right, has only had 10 months in the mayor’s office in Trenton in which to vanquish the troubled legacy of his predecessor, build his administrative team, and find a way to reverse the fortunes of the capital city. “One of the things that I was anticipating focusing on immediately was public safety,” he says. And right afterwards came the economy. “We have to put our focus and attention to good economic development,” he says.
But there was just one problem: The mayor, who was once director of public works, had absolutely no experience with economic development. Jackson says he set about looking for an administrative staff who could provide the skills that he lacked. One of his biggest victories came in October, when the city council voted to waive the residency requirement for his cabinet, allowing him to bring on board Monique King-Viehland, who was formerly head of a major redevelopment project at NJIT, and other staffers who live outside the city.
Now that Jackson has the cabinet he wants, he is working on such pressing matters as education, policing, redevelopment, and — somewhat less pressing — the city’s two feuding pork roll festivals.
Jackson will discuss economic development and public safety in Trenton in a speech to the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, May 21, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Trenton. $25. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Jackson grew up in a blue collar family in Trenton, where his father, Otto, worked as a cylinder operator at Mercer Oxygen and Supply. His mother, Gladys, worked in retail stores. Both parents worked hard to send Jackson to the Hun School. He graduated in 1976 and got a business degree at Fairleigh Dickinson. Jackson worked at Citibank in Maryland for a few years before returning to his home city, where he has worked for the municipal government for the past 17 years. Before being elected mayor, he was director of public works.
Jackson’s immediate predecessor, Tony Mack, moved from the mayor’s office to a cell in federal prison after he was busted in an anti-corruption sting operation. Jackson says he has spent much of the last year “cleaning up” the mess left behind by the Mack administration. His chief frustration is not being able to move as fast as he would like on the changes he hopes to make, including getting businesses and potential residents to take a second look at the city. “There is so much work to do, and we are just getting started,” Jackson says. “We are still cleaning up, and we are doing it with half the staff that was here when I was public works director.”
Then there is the matter of the competing pork roll festivals. Last year’s well-attended festival set the stage for a repeat performance on Saturday, May 23. But a beef between the pork organizers, TC Nelson, owner of Trenton Social restaurant and bar, and Scott Miller, owner of Exit 7A Creative Services in Trenton, has caused a split that threatens to chop the audience in half. Nelson’s “Trenton Pork Roll Festival 2015” will be held at Trenton Social, and Miller’s “Official 2nd Pork Roll Festival” will be held at the same time at Mill Hill Park. Jackson says neither event will hog his attention, and he will be attending both.
Anyone wishing to burn off calories from two pork roll festivals could do worse than attending another up-and-coming event, the Trenton Half Marathon, which will send runners on a riverfront course on November 7. Jackson says the city supports both events, and hopes happenings like these, along with cultural attractions like Art All Night, scheduled for overnight on Saturday, June 20, at the old Roebling Wire Works on South Clinton Avenue can draw more visitors to the city.
Jackson is also aiming to make the city attractive as a home and a place of doing business as well as a destination. To that end, he says, physically cleaning up the city is a key. Visitors who see a street free of trash will be more likely to invest.
The Jackson administration has already had some success in reviving projects that had seemed to stall in the past few years. Jackson plans to attend a ribbon cutting for the Roebling Wire Factory project, a mixed-use development containing residential and retail units. Jackson notes that 80 percent of the residential units will be market rate. The long-vacant factory along Route 129 near the light rail station will be turned into 190 apartments and 27,000 square feet of shops and restaurants in a $42 million project that includes a $16 million state tax credit, which the city of Trenton helped secure.
Viehland says the city also helped broker a deal with a local bank to get the developers, HHG, a loan against the tax credit so they would have money up front to purchase the property and begin construction.
Jackson says this was one instance where his good relationship with the Christie administration has paid off, since he was able to get support for the project from the Economic Development Authority. Another potential source of residential development is the Homesteading program, organized last year, which would allow families to buy vacant properties in Trenton and refurbish them with the help of government-backed loans. Jackson says the city is working with state agencies to pre-qualify about 300 people who have expressed interest in buying one of the city’s 2,700 vacant housing unit that were identified in a study by Isles, the nonprofit community development group.
Jackson has also turned his attention downtown, where he hopes to bring in more shops and apartments. He plans to introduce a resolution to the city council to officially select a developer for the Bell Telephone building on East State Street catty-corner to the Broad Street Bank building. The new plan calls for 85 residential units and street-level retail, including a gym operated by a nonprofit group.
The Bell Telephone building is another example of a project that has stalled in recent years. In the early 2000s, the historic tower was set for redevelopment, but the deal imploded in 2008 and it has been vacant ever since. Jackson says the developer, Ajax Management, is already buying other properties around that area, fueling hopes that a thriving downtown business district could take shape. He also is working with the state government to turn state-owned buildings on Stockton Street into retail, further increasing the number of storefronts downtown.
But any residential development will face the difficulty of attracting families to live in a place where the school district ranks poorly on graduation rates, standardized test scores, and many other ways in which academic success can be measured. Jackson says his new superintendent, Francisco Duran, has succeeded in improving the graduation rate at Trenton Central High School from 51 percent to 72 percent despite a $16 million budget shortfall last year that forced cuts in many areas.
Jackson says like many things lately, the improved graduation rate is a step forward, but not yet where it needs to be.
“We are on the right road,” he says.