Business in Trenton, or lack thereof, has been near the top of the list of the city’s problems for the last few decades. But Eric Jackson, the city’s newly elected mayor, has set to work reversing some of the most recent economic setbacks Trenton suffered under his predecessor.
Jackson took office after the previous mayor, Tony Mack, traded his city hall office for a cell in a federal prison for taking bribes. Jackson believes the political turmoil in Trenton has taken the focus off of economic development, and he now hopes to get to work bringing businesses back into the city.
Jackson will lay out his vision for the city Tuesday, September 30, at 7:30 a.m. at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Trenton, in a talk sponsored by several organizations, including the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Tickets are $25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.princetonchamber.org.
The lurid story of the former mayor’s corruption trial illustrated why businesses may have been wary to set up shop in Trenton. In an FBI sting operation, a man posing as a developer offered the mayor envelopes full of cash in exchange for permits to build a parking garage. The favor trading took place through an intermediary, a 500-pound sex offender named Jojo Giorgianni, in his sandwich shop.
Jackson campaigned on being a better partner for business people interested investing in the city.
One of the more stinging setbacks for Trenton was the departure in 2013 of Wells Fargo Bank, which had set up a headquarters in a prominent downtown building in 2006. The bank said the East Front Street office building was too big for its 80-person staff and moved into a more manageable space in Carnegie Center.
Jackson also noted there has been a departure of law firms from the state capital to the suburbs.
“Over the last few years, we have had a number of larger law offices for various reasons leave the city,” Jackson says. “Banks have also left major offices in the city. As mayor I think we are prime for those types of businesses. We want to have conversations with them and see if there is any interest in the short term to lure them back into the city.”
Jackson says he has had preliminary conversations with legal and banking leaders whose firms recently departed and believes they are open to the idea of moving back to Trenton. After all, he noted, the location of so many courts in the state capital (and county seat)make it an ideal place for law offices.
Jackson may use more than just arguments to bring the bankers and attorneys back into Trenton’s city limits. “I don’t want to give anything away, but having incentives is a way to promote the city,” he says. “The state of New Jersey under GROW and other incentive acts can make it easier for development to happen.”
To Jackson, one of the most promising projects is the proposed $65 million HHG redevelopment of the Roebling Steel plant. The developers want to turn the Wire Rope District just off Route 129 into a hip urban neighborhood with retail, commercial, entertainment spaces, and loft apartments.
The Roebling plant is far from the only old factory that lies empty, awaiting redevelopment into the next urban hotspot. Jackson praised the nonprofit group Isles for conducting a survey of Trenton’s vacant properties. The group is currently categorizing them, and Jackson says planners will go through the properties identified and set redevelopment priorities.
Jackson believes the legal, technology, and medical fields as well as light industry could be key parts of the Trenton economy in the future.
Jackson grew up in a blue collar family in Trenton, where his father, Otto, worked as a cylinder operator at Mercer Oxygen and Supply. His mother, Gladys, worked in retail stores. Both parents worked hard to send Jackson to the Hun School. He graduated in 1976 and got a business degree at Fairleigh Dickinson. Jackson worked at Citibank in Maryland for a few years before returning to his home city, where he has worked for the municipal government for the past 17 years. Before being elected mayor, he was director of public works.
But why should the city’s urban renaissance, seemingly always on the horizon, actually take place under Jackson’s administration?
“I think there are a couple of things that will enable us to go forward,” Jackson says. “Our objectives are very clear. In addition to that, we have a renewed strong partnership with the state and county governments. We have reached out and engaged with the business community and stakeholders. These indicators and ingredients are there, more so than in past years.”
Jackson’s first priorities after taking office were setting the stage for making this pitch by making dents in the crime problem and the appearance of the city. “The city is becoming safer and cleaner,” he says.
Jackson says the arts community will be key in the city’s redevelopment. “Arts, culture, and history have been some of the bright lights over the past few years when not much else was going on,” he says, citing the Art All Night festival, the Punk Rock Flea Market, Ellarslie, Gallery 219, and the Passage Theater company.
“The arts community accomplished all this absent government involvement,” he says. “I want to get in front of it and will join as a partner and a stakeholder, and the arts is one thing that I’ll champion. They could do even better having a mayor and a council that helps lift it up to greater heights.”
The implied criticism of the previous administrations may be typical of mayors everywhere after a changing of the guard, but Jackson says the change in City Hall has already brought potential partners back to the table. “We haven’t had a shortage of people coming to talk and explore possibilities with the new leadership,” Jackson says.
“We are going about the business of fixing issues that we had inherited, and taking great strides to rebuild,” he says.