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Affordability, Climate Change and Managing Federal Funding Among Critical Issues Explored during NAIOP NJ’s Public Policy Symposium
EDISON, N.J., March 31, 2022 — With a new session of the New Jersey Legislature underway, legislative leaders shared their top priorities for making the Garden State more affordable, prosperous and business-friendly during NAIOP New Jersey’s recent Public Policy Symposium.
NAIOP NJ President Gus Milano and CEO Mike McGuinness led a panel discussion featuring Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho and Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio. The program also included conversations with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, who addressed lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and what steps they are taking to move their cities forward.
Making New Jersey More Affordable
Affordability was top of mind for each of the legislators as they discussed their priorities for the session:
- Coughlin: “We all got a message from voters to pay attention to what really matters in our lives. We have to focus on helping small businesses come back, and we have to manage the windfall of money from Washington and do things that are transformative. We also have to focus on things like mental health and food insecurity, one of the things I’ve been passionate about during my time as Speaker. When we do something like increase SNAP benefits so students can eat lunch and breakfast, the burden it takes off low-income families is profound.”
- Scutari: “We are trying to be as bipartisan as possible in doing the right things for New Jersey, working together in a collaborative fashion to make bills that are okay great, and make bills that are great even better. We have been talking about the message of affordability forever. Affordability to live, work, and raise a family means jobs that will support a lifestyle that allows you to live in one of the most expensive areas in the country. And making sure that the cost of doing business in New Jersey is at a rate that is commensurate with what you get.”
- Oroho: “The one thing I’ve been focused on most in my career is the issue of competitiveness. Capital attraction and retention – we lost that in New Jersey – and the idea of making us more competitive is what I’m going to continue to focus on. We are awash in cash, and we have a bill in the Senate to use some of the American Rescue Plan for the tax increase that will happen on July 1.”
- DiMaio: “Property tax is on all of our minds. There are dedicated funds which have been held at the state level that should be at the municipal level. We have a unique opportunity right now with the money we have on hand, if we manage it right, work it back into where it belongs, and take those dollars and cut property taxes, it will be a relief across the entire state.”
Climate Change, Third Party Inspections and Liquor License Reform
The panel weighed in on a number of other issues impacting the state and the commercial real estate industry. The four lawmakers were unanimous on the need for liquor license reform, but agreed that the changes must be both comprehensive and fair for the many small businesses that currently hold licenses. They indicated that there has been movement on bills to make permanent some of the pandemic-fueled changes that have proven successful, such as home delivery of cocktails.
Other key issues discussed included:
Ensuring that climate change regulations are in balance with economic realities:
- Coughlin: “The governor has an impressive energy plan. We do have to worry about making sure the infrastructure is there, and look at it holistically. We have to make sure we can continue to provide the energy we need to get projects up and going right now with an eye towards the future. What the legislature can do is be mindful of that as we go through our legislative process.”
- Oroho: “It is very important that the legislature stay fully involved in the process. There are a lot of things happening right now, like electrification, and we need to know the real cost of that. It could be a very expensive thing for businesses as well as households, and it is critically important that we exert our influence.”
- DiMaio: “As with any other change in energy that we’ve gone through, it will be an evolutionary process. To set dates like 2035 or 2040 is putting the cart before the horse. We need to get the infrastructure in place to carry the load and then build out the pieces of this.”
Support for the third-party inspection bill:
- Coughlin: “I think it makes sense. The LSRP program has proven to be very successful and we just need to work it through with the governor so the bill will get signed.”
- Scutari: “It seems like a very good piece of legislation. I understand there have been some changes to it that may help get the governor’s office on board, so I anticipate we will probably see movement on it again soon.”
Helping towns and counties share services to cut costs:
- Oroho: “I wholeheartedly support the sharing of services and taking down barriers and roadblocks to try to encourage as much sharing as possible. With modern technology there are a lot of things you can do, and businesses have been doing it for decades. Government is probably 25 years behind business, so all you have to do is follow what businesses have done.”
- DiMaio: “Seeing it from a practical side, it is a good thing to do. But merging municipalities is the best and most effective way to share services.”
- Coughlin: “The opportunity is out there. I think we need to rely on communities to constantly be looking at how they go about serving their constituents best and how they can save money. Merging communities is not so simple.”
Intentional Investment is Key to Newark’s Post-Pandemic Growth
The second segment of the program featured discussions with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh about lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are meeting the challenges of moving their cities forward.
Doug Sarini of Edison Properties noted that Newark seemed far better prepared than most cities for dealing with the pandemic, and asked Mayor Baraka how he did it. “A lot of prayer, and a lot of commitment to work towards what we thought our goals should be and push through in a very thoughtful and deliberate way,” said Baraka, a Newark native whose family has lived in the city over 80 years. “When I first took office, our unemployment rate was at 14%. Right before the pandemic we were a little over 5%, in the middle of the pandemic we went to 22%. Right now, we are at 8%, and we were listed as one of the top 100 cities that is coming back from the pandemic.”
Baraka noted that ongoing investment and development have served the city well, helping to quickly bring back jobs and provide opportunities for residents who lost their jobs. “During the Facebook Lives we did throughout the pandemic, we talked about virtual job fairs and positive recruitment. We didn’t rest in the storm like a lot of people did, and wait for the storm to pass. We had the idea to push through it, knowing the sunlight was there. We talked about this twice a day, every day, for two years.”
Sarini asked how the administration is planning for the possibility that workers may not return to offices. “The city can take a hit financially and compensate for it. I think the real problem is the mom-and-pop businesses that have been impacted. They’re the ones who hire residents and are more committed to the neighborhood. When you don’t bring workers back, it affects their ability to sell goods. That’s why I’m sounding the clarion call for large employers to return.”
Baraka also addressed the impact of population growth on housing demand. “Mixing retail, commercial and residential is a model that works and we need to do that in the City of Newark. When we build market-rate housing there has to be some set aside for affordability at different levels of income. We need to create opportunities for young people who go to college and come back to have a community they want to live in, where they can work and start their careers.”
His administration is also trying to create more opportunities for home ownership to feed the city’s tax base. “It adds a level of staying power, of generational and wealth growth. For example, we created a tool for folks that have been living in public housing for generations that allowed them to take their vouchers, with the help of HUD, and turn them into a 15-year mortgage.”
Baraka said that while state subsidies are needed to help fulfill the city’s development goals, there needs to be greater collaboration. “The state often has a plan that takes a 30,000-foot view of what should happen, and it collides in some instances with what is happening on the municipal level because there is no real discourse or discussion. The state should provide umbrella services that cities can supplement and piggyback on.”
City of Paterson is Doubling Down on Development
Blue Onyx Companies’ Levi Kelman spoke with Mayor Andre Sayegh and Michael Powell, Director of Economic Development, about COVID’s impact on the City of Paterson. “We could never have anticipated anything like this,” said Sayegh, who took office in 2018. He recalled a request by his public health officer in April 2019 to apply for a grant to build capacity in the Division of Health in the event of a food-borne outbreak. The grant was used to develop a Strike Team that would later be activated as a Contact Tracing Team and garner national recognition. “There is no playbook for a pandemic,” said the mayor. “You have to be able to call audibles. You’ve got to get up to the line of scrimmage and change plays.”
Asked how the experience has changed his vision for the city, Sayegh said, “The operative word is resilience. We’ve been able to endure this crisis, we’ve learned our lesson, we’ve been tested and trusted. Now, as far as the future is concerned, I think we double down on what we want to do as far as development is concerned. Helping those who are less fortunate.”
This includes addressing longstanding issues such as poverty and social justice by creating programs like the new Financial Empowerment Center and a driver’s license restoration program, as well as signature development projects like restoring Hinchliffe Stadium, that point to cultural heritage and employ Paterson residents of color.
Projects ranging from creating parks and play spaces to redeveloping historical and cultural sites and revitalizing the train station are designed to create jobs and improve the quality of life for residents as well as attract businesses and tourists. Powell noted, “If you look at the last three and a half years since the mayor took office, we are looking at about $800 million in development. That’s never been seen before.”
The Economic Recovery Act of 2021 designated Paterson as one of three municipalities with access to some of the most favorable state incentives and tax credit programs available. Kelman asked how the administration planned to capitalize on this opportunity. “We’ve identified two phases of planning dollars,” said Powell. “Phase 1 will allow us to analyze broader needs and older projects that need to be lifted up. Phase 2 provides funding for us to go deeper and wider, such as considering an innovative commercial corridor, capitalizing on tourism and cultural heritage destinations, and taking an inclusionary zoning approach to ensure employment for members of our community.”
While Sayegh does not see manufacturing returning to the Silk City in a traditional sense, he noted that cannabis and motion pictures are already emerging industries in the city. Potential opportunities include harnessing assets like the Great Falls for hydropower, manufacturing solar panels or wind turbines and attracting healthcare and food-based businesses. “We have a willing work force, we have the history behind us, and we see companies relocating to the city. Newark has happened. Paterson is working to make it happen. We are the next frontier.”
Photo Caption: Pictured left to right are NAIOP NJ CEO Michael McGuinness, Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho, and NAIOP NJ President Gus Milano.