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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
On Grosbeaks and the Regional Economy
I went out to give a speech on the state of the regional
economy the other day, and I ended up citing statistics about the
number of rose-breasted grosbeaks found along the towpath of the Delaware & Raritan Canal.
It was a reach, I will admit, but it was also a tough crowd: The Mercer County Top Producers Association, a group of 70 or 80 residential real estate brokers who gather once a month at the Hyatt to exchange information about houses on the market and prospective buyers.
It’s a tough audience because it’s a knowledgeable audience. Anyone
who has ever considered selling a house on their own to save the real
estate commission ought to be a fly on the wall at a Top Producers
meeting — a lot of leads are exchanged. At a time when you would
expect everything you ever needed to know about residential real estate
to be contained in some computer database, the top producers seemed
to keep a prodigious amount of information in their heads. And some
of them don’t forget much.
Peggy Hughes, who has been a longtime agent at the corner of Witherspoon
and Spring streets — first with Henderson and now with Gloria
Nilson GMAC — introduced herself. "And I remember you,"
she said, "when you were writing for the Town Topics." That
was 1974 and ’75.
Robin Wallack, another veteran salesperson, now with Prudential Fox
& Roach, asked me where I was living. Park Place, I replied. "But
wasn’t your first house on Moran Avenue?" she asked. It was. That
So I gave my state of the regional economy address, not sure at any
moment whether I was informing the group or just reminding them of
what they already knew. On the one hand (in the tradition of the great
economists and all television weather forecasters, I was sure to make
the glass half empty and half full), I referred to the national downturn
in the technology, Internet, and media sectors and noted that Princeton
has not escaped this turn of events.
The 2002 U.S. 1 Business Directory, I noted, showed a striking downturn
in the number of people reported working for companies listed in the
Internet category, 407 to 198, as well as the number in software development,
2,435 to 2,075. The list of Top 50 employers printed in the directory
revealed some changes as well. For the first time in my memory Bloomberg
reported a decrease in staff size, from 1,700 to 1,600. Also down:
Sarnoff, 800 in 2001 to 675 in 2002. Little did I know, but as I was
speaking Sarnoff was going through another downsizing, to a staff
size of just 575.
I mentioned the twin buildings at 7 and 9 Roszel Road,
hailed in 1999 as the beginning of a new bull market in Princeton’s
commercial real estate market because they were the first new spec
buildings in about a decade and they were almost immediately full
leased, largely by Merrill Lynch. But now the entire front building,
about 110,000 square feet, is up for sublease — Merrill Lynch
is cutting back.
But on the other hand (and I guess that’s why we were born with two
of them), Princeton is still blessed with many small employers and
few large ones. If you compared staff sizes of all employers in the
2001 directory with those listed in 2002, you would see a net difference
of 2,000 or so out of a total of 175,000.
And one of the most stable — Princeton University — has just
begun a major expansion in its undergraduate enrollment. It’s something
like 10 percent, I told the brokers. "Twelve percent," one
of them noted.
Plus — and I thought this would be encouraging for the residential
real estate market — Princeton and central New Jersey still have
at least one special intangible attribute that people today find particularly
comforting. That’s the environment. While those of us who have been
around since the early 1970s or before tend to think of what’s been
lost (farms in Plainsboro and Cranbury, sod farms along Route 1, the
ridge in Princeton Township), newcomers celebrate what’s been preserved
(the Institute woods, the Sourland Mountains) and what’s been recently
revealed (the Plainsboro Preserve and its McCormack Lake, for example).
In front of the top producers I pulled out the most recent edition
of our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. Carolyn
Foote Edelmann, a poet and naturalist, had written an ode to a spring
walk along the D&R Canal towpath in the shadow of this bustling business
"There’s a sort-of-rule that the rarer the bird, the less they
tend to be afraid of humans. This one proves that legend: a single
rose-breasted grosbeak sits merrily, serenely so close that I could
almost touch its tail," Edelmann wrote. "I have seen this
bird four times in my entire life, and I remember every site. Two
were on the Alexander towpath."
So how is Princeton doing these days? The rose-breasted grosbeak —
with no axe to grind — says it is at least still a nice place
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