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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

was 1977.

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

community.

"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

to visit.


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