Hmmmm. How should we start this one?
Take I: Maybe you have heard the rumor that government is broken. Well if you don’t believe that, come with me to West Windsor, a place I know a little, and let me make the case.
Take II: Maybe you have heard the rumor that government is broken. Well if you believe that, come with me to Plainsboro, a place I know a little, and let me make the case.
OK. Let me start on the bright note, Plainsboro. While I spend most of my time here as editor of U.S. 1, every two weeks I don the cap of the editor of the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, where the news always includes a visit to Plainsboro, just 20 or 30 years ago the home of Elsie the Cow and her brethren (and not many more human beings) and now a township of 21,000 straddling Route 1.
Plainsboro has been in the news recently as the new home of the Princeton Medical Center, the linchpin of a 160-acre development that will also include medical offices, a continuing care retirement facility, a fitness center, and a 32-acre public park. It’s estimated that the hospital and its ancillary development will bring a billion dollars a year in new economic activity to the township.
More recently Plainsboro got into the news for being ranked No. 7 among all 566 cities and towns in the state as a “Best Place to Live” by New Jersey Monthly magazine. While the methodology of the survey was challenged by many of the towns that fell in the rankings, the qualitative description seemed inarguable.
“Home prices in Plainsboro have gone up (8 percent since 2006) when those of other towns have sagged. ‘I think it speaks to, frankly, the desirability of the community,’ says Mayor Pete Cantu. Located in Middlesex County, the 11.8 square-mile town that was previously a rural farming enclave has transitioned into a vibrantly diverse community.
“Plainsboro Village, the original settlement in the township with buildings dating from the 18th century, is undergoing a mix of preservation and development that includes a new library. The 1,000-acre Plainsboro Preserve contains nature trails, a lake, and an Environmental Education Center that is one of nine New Jersey Audubon Society nature centers.
“But perhaps one of the township’s biggest draws is that, over the past two years, the median property tax bill has increased only 1.9 percent while the rest of the state has seen an average jump of 7.8 percent.”
Credit here has to go to a government that works — led by a mayor, Peter Cantu, who has been in office for three decades — coupled with a population that’s amenable to working with the mayor. I went to a meeting of the Plainsboro Business Partnership the other day and heard a “state of the township” presentation by the mayor. He said all the things you would expect about the town’s balanced budget, low taxes, the good things that will come with the hospital, and the dedicated open space (in fact, he pointed out, New Jersey Monthly understated the township’s 50 percent of open space and perhaps should have ranked Plainsboro even higher).
What impressed me was that after the mayor’s talk, the question session left the accolades behind and focussed on the quintessential aspects of any government — things that don’t work. Business owners asked about delays in getting signs approved, bridge repair, and possible traffic consequences of the hospital’s relocation. The mayor and his constituents didn’t always agree on the path forward, but they were civil throughout.
Now, about that rumor that government isn’t working. Let’s visit West Windsor, just south of Plainsboro and sharing with it a boundary line and a school district — the acclaimed West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional Schools.
Long before the Princeton Medical Center was even a glimmer in the Plainsboro eye, West Windsor had its sights on the massive train station sitting in the heart of the township at Princeton Junction. The station is one of the busiest on the Northeast Corridor, and West Windsor officials and business people saw a gold mine in a mixed-use project that would replace acres of parking with more efficient parking decks and office, retail, and housing projects that would link to the shop-worn retail strip on Princeton-Hightstown Road.
For the details you can read my piece in the archives at www.princetoninfo.com — look under May 28, 2008. Suffice it to say that the West Windsor project has slowly burned while politicians and residents have fiddled over various schemes and approaches in contentious meetings, election campaigns, PR efforts, and lawsuits. Most recently a member of council sued the mayor for failure to submit a budget report. When the township hired a lawyer to represent the mayor that triggered another tempest.
West Windsor makes the case for government not working an easy one. But it’s not that easy. The government does not work as well as it should, but neither does the public that elects the government. In West Windsor mistrust rules. Township projects get picked over for flaws by watchdog citizens. Administrators are called to task for either failing to act or for spending too much money when they do.
In the time that West Windsor has spent haggling over its train station, Plainsboro invited discussions with the hospital, won the bidding war for its relocation (competing against West Windsor, among other towns), implemented a redevelopment plan, and saw construction begin. It’s a good bet that the hospital will be completed before the first shovel goes into the ground at the train station.
A few months ago hospital CEO Barry Rabner wrote an op-ed piece for this newspaper on how the hospital made its decision to move from Princeton to Plainsboro.
“We are surrounded by cynicism and disrespect,” Rabner wrote. “Almost daily, people argue that our public institutions are ‘inept and inefficient,’ our leaders are ‘narrow minded, self serving and corrupt,’ and the public is ‘naive, easily manipulated, incapable of serious debate, and rude.’
“Our simple idea was that we could achieve our goal of building a new hospital on a new, comprehensive health care campus if we simply rejected all the cynical notions and assumed the best of the people and organizations around us . . . The planning strategy had one fundamental principle: reject the cynicism and treat everyone as smart, well-intended partners.”
An insightful statement, one that West Windsor and Plainsboro each can read in their own way.