As a child growing up in north Trenton, Diana Rogers regularly walked past a vacant lot across the street from the Battle Monument on Broad Street. The empty lot seemed to always have a sign stuck in the dirt claiming the promise of things to come. “There was always something coming,” says Rogers, the interim executive director of the Trenton Capital City Redevelopment Corporation (CRCC). “But nothing ever came.”
That image stuck with Rogers through her years at Trenton High, when she had aspirations of becoming an attorney. When she went off to North Carolina Central University to earn a degree in political science, she picked up a minor in geography, and the connection between city planning and the vacant lot on Broad Street clicked. But she still did not know who was responsible for making things happen in Trenton.
Rogers, whose mother was an employee of the state Division of Motor Vehicles for more than 40 years, has worked as a contract administrator for the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, the former director of housing and shelter operations for the YWCA of Trenton, and is currently co-chair of the Mayor’s Economic Advisory Council for the City of Trenton. She went to work at CCRC in 2008 as project manager and became interim executive director in 2011.
The 18 years spent moving up the ranks in non-profit, community, and economic organizations has given Rogers more than enough time to wrestle with the question hands on and come up with some answers.
Rogers will be part of the free panel discussion “Redevelopment and Community Benefits in the City of Trenton,” on Saturday, March 9, at 10 a.m. at the Lighthouse Outreach Center at 715 Bellvue Avenue in Trenton. Other panelists include Richard Libby of Bayville Holdings LLC, the co-developer of the Broad Street Bank building in downtown Trenton; Tim Razzaq of Community Benefits Agreements; Zachary Chester, Trenton West Ward city councilman; Reverend Gerald Ambassador Truehart, Trenton School Board member; and James Gee, governmental affairs specialist and progressive policy champion. Call 609-379-2926 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.
The panelists have varying ideas on what should be done and who should do it, ranging from government representation of residents’ interests, to small business development and incentives, to reconverting abandoned real estate, to laying the groundwork for a new city-wide economic platform.
But there is one thing upon which they all agree: Successful redevelopment will require a coordinated effort between everyone who stands to benefit (or lose) from the process, including government officials, business interests, and members of the community. “Our [next] step is to talk about how redevelopment happens and what it really is,” says Rogers.
Steps involve community benefit agreements (CBAs), which are contracts between a community coalition and a developer. CBAs can include certain guarantees, such as employment or affordable housing. Once finalized, a developer will incorporate the CBA into a formal disposition it sends to the city. If the government approves, the document and the terms of the disposition, along with the CBA, become legally enforceable.
Before a CBA can be created, the coalition must draft a cooperation agreement (CAG) that specifies how community members and groups will work with each other. Before that happens, the members of the coalition need to be on the same page conceptually. In the end, says Rogers, “The community has to step up, and you need to have a willing developer.”
The CCRC was originally created to monitor the state’s impact on downtown Trenton. It gained more power after legislative changes in 2010 declared it an economic development agency with more leeway to manage its own funds and affairs. But though there are city residents on the CCRC board of directors, there are still enough non-residents to win a majority vote in decisions that might pit the interests of the city versus outside factors.
According to Rogers, the CCRC is not the only vehicle for economic and community development in Trenton — its mandate is limited to redevelopment in the capital district downtown. Once all of the various interests groups understand each others’ capabilities, they can leverage each other’s resources and skill sets, accomplishing more together than they can apart.
“Our [next] step is to talk about how redevelopment happens and what it really it is,” says Rogers, who plans to use the panel to give an overview of how things work and share information on projects that are in the pipeline.
Rogers insists that if community members want to see changes reflecting their own interests, they need come together, get a sense of what’s most important to them collectively, seek out the relevant resources and information, and make a plan of action.
“It is important [for government] to get involved, but I also think that residents can start the process,” says Rogers. She hopes the panel will give Trenton residents insight about how to best forward agendas regarding their most important interests and concerns.
Include all the stakeholders. “Residents should understand they are a big part of what happens in revitalizing and stabilizing neighborhoods,” says Rogers. “It’s important for them to be involved in that process.” When individuals and groups begin to talk about vision and neighborhood plans for the community, all these stakeholders should be part of a larger discussion. The next step is to get everyone on the same page.
The earlier, the better. Early involvement often yields greater influence so that community members can take advantage of the jobs, housing, careers, education, training, and entrepreneurial opportunities being generated by redevelopment. Concerned citizens should attend local planning board meetings or ask planning officials to visit their neighborhoods. That’s where ideas are first introduced, not city council.
Manage expectations. One of the most important functions of forums like these is the educational aspect. Understanding how the redevelopment process works and identifying all of the interested parties will give community members a better idea of how they can accomplish things.
Choose projects wisely. “All development is not necessarily good development,” says Rogers. There are projects that just don’t make sense. It’s unwise not to consider the economic interests of developers or to think of community benefit agreements as giveaways or buyouts, but, says Rogers. “If there’s redevelopment in a community, and a developer is just walking away with dollars and the community and the city is not improved, then that’s not good development.”
Get it done. Beyond all the talking there needs to be a plan for implementation. Rogers notes that progress often results when shared, concentrated efforts are made by community members to formulate a collective vision and focus.
Rogers specifically recalls when residents took charge of the Kathryn Graham development project on Calhoun Street. “The particular site took several years to be realized,” says Rogers, “but community members did not give up on that process.”
She also recalls the final outcome of the lot across from the Battle Monument that she carried as an ambition from her childhood. “It was once vacant,” says Rogers. “Now it has housing.”