Thomas Gilmour is a bit of a renegade when it comes to Trenton downtown boosters. Gilmour, who was hired as director of the Trenton Downtown Association in May, has a plan for encouraging business in downtown Trenton and is happy to tell anyone about it. And while the playbook is familiar — use the arts community and historic sites to draw visitors and drum up business — Gilmour talks about the city a bit differently than some of those who have come before.
Gilmour has an aversion to cliches when discussing his plans to revive the capital city’s downtown. Asked to describe Trenton’s advantages, Gilmour did not cite its location “halfway between New York and Philadelphia” as many do. Instead, he described Trenton as a population center in its own right. “There are just enough people who live within 20 miles of the city who would come here if there were lots of reasons to come here,” he said.
He also shunned buzzwords when discussing the kind of business he hoped to attract and the demographics of the potential workforce. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to bring the younger demographic into Trenton,” he said. “We have four colleges right here, and it’s a great place to live in an urban setting. We have everything we need.”
The TDA hired Gilmour mainly because of his recent track record of success. From 2002 to 2015 he was director of economic development for Asbury Park. The struggling shore town was down on its luck, with its beach seldom visited and its downtown business district virtually nonexistent. “The city was in worse shape than I ever thought it was,” Gilmour said.
Gilmour began the difficult task of recruiting businesses to move there. “Asbury Park was ironically in the same type of situation that Trenton is today. People think it’s unsafe to come here, and obviously there is a perception of crime in the city, which exists. We shouldn’t placate that by any means, but you have to deal with that on the economic side,” Gilmour said.
Over the next decade Gilmour launched various programs to help businesses get on their feet. Using money from Asbury Park’s Urban Enterprise Zone, he started facade improvement and microloan programs as well as a PR campaign to burnish Asbury Park’s image.
Life has slowly returned to the city. While many parts of Asbury Park are still impoverished, the New York Times last year said the town was showing “signs of rejuvenation.” A large gay population moved to town and began refurbishing its Victorian-era homes. Gilmour said they also became ambassadors for the city, encouraging more people to open shops there.
“I expect something very similar to happen here in Trenton,” he said. “We just have to rally around, and everybody has to become an ambassador for the city.”
As head of Asbury Park’s revitalization efforts, Gilmour organized music festivals, gave grants, marketed the city to tourists, and worked with city government, civic groups, and businesses to improve the business climate. The Asbury Park Press called him a “champion of tourism.”
“We were very lucky in Asbury Park to attract technology companies with younger workers to come into the city, and they in turn attracted a significant number of — I hate the word ‘millennials,’ so I’m just going to say a younger demographic group.”
Gilmour grew up in Monmouth County, where his father was an obstetrician and his mother was a housewife. He got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bucknell and embarked on a career that included work in banking, being the president of a transportation company, and work in sales and management with the New Jersey Department of Commerce’s Urban Enterprise Program.
It was while working for the UEZ program that Gilmour got interested in cities and urban development. “All of the cities that are part of the UEZ program really needed some type of outside help, and the UEZ was a great program that provided that kind of help,” he said.
In his newest role, Gilmour plans to use Trenton’s arts scene as the centerpiece of a revitalization effort. “We’re going to sit down with the arts community and talk about how we are going to expand our reach,” he said. “Many people in Trenton know about the arts community, but not many people outside of Trenton really understand how great the arts community is here. We have to work on that. Part of my strategy in Asbury Park was to create events to bring people into the city.” He said the arts programs quickly grew in attendance until monthly “First Saturdays” events were bringing in large crowds.
Gilmour said the popular annual Art All Night show, which takes place at Artworks, proves that there is an audience for such events.
Music is also a part of his strategy, and he points to the 10-week concert series taking place on Capitol Green. The first concert will be Saturday, July 23.
“It’s the kind of event that gets people back into the city. Hopefully they will come early and have dinner at some of our restaurants, or stay late and go to our restaurants or clubs. Many of them will be doing special events afterwards,” Gilmour said.
History is another obvious tourist draw, with Trenton’s Revolutionary War sites like the Old Barracks reliably drawing in busloads of schoolchildren. The trick, Gilmour said, is to figure out how to get families, not just school children, to visit to enjoy historical landmarks. “Richard Patterson gave me a tour of the barracks, which blew me away, “ he said.
Gilmour is optimistic about the prospects of success, given the city’s cultural assets and attractive architecture. “There are what I call ‘good bones’ here in Trenton,” he said.