Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Read this. And weep.

Short and sweet. That is what last night's council meeting wasn't.

As you might imagine most of the evening was spent listening to the pros and cons of the proposed TESC deal to develop the Glen Cairn Arms site.I think pretty much everyone in the room agrees that the site is an eyesore long in need of a makeover.

You can probably find almost as many people who agree the existing buildings, though they were once marvelous, must come down. Plus the asbestos on the premises must be dealt with.

And it is a safe bet that most people would agree that both the prior administration and this one have fumbled the handling of this property. From the clumsy seizure by eminent domain that resulted in the city (the taxpayers) settling with the owner for at least $3.3 million dollars (possibly more...if the original $1 million was not included in that one seems to know at this point) to the refusal to put the additional money into razing the buildings and prepping the site for development; the city of Trenton has failed to handle this situation well.

There are almost as many people who are, overall, fans of Thomas Edison State College. Although techinically a college without walls, the institution under the firm and steady hand of Dr. George Pruitt has made a committment to Trenton even as other colleges and universities with traditional ties to the city have turned their backs on us. Where the division remains is whether this proposal is the best we can do, especially since it will result in removing the property from the tax rolls. Forever.

Trenton has a fiscal problem. We scream and shout about the fact that the state occupies so much space in the city and pays so little. Yet we are being asked to give them another .9 of an acre. Yes. TESC is offering a "one time" payment of $300,000 in lieu of taxes. True, this is more than the site has generated in the past 16 years or so. But we can't change the past. We can only change the future.
Giving TESC the property for only $300,000 guarantees us no tax revenues in the future. Ever.

Now those who favor the proposal will tell you there are ancillary benefits. They site jobs, increased foot traffic and patronage for local businesses and encouragement for others to invest in the city.

Nice, but...

Jobs: Yes, there will be some construction jobs. There is no guarantee that those jobs will go to Trenton residents. More importantly, there will be the same potential for short-term construction jobs no matter who builds on that site. We were also told that constructing this nursing school facility will create teaching jobs. Well, maybe. But wouldn't those jobs be created wherever the college sites the nursing school? And, again, how many of these teaching jobs are going to go to Trenton residents?

Increased foot traffic/patronage: Just what businesses are going to be supported by the students at this school? There is a coffee shop in the building catty-corner across the street from the site. Beyond that, it is two blocks to the nearest businesses. It is more likely that students and employees short on time will walk to Antonio's in Morrisville than to any of the restaurants downtown. And do we know whether or not there will be some sort of snack bar or cafeteria in the new building? If there is, then the building becomes more or less self-contained and the staff and students won't have to leave to get food.

Spurring economic development: Getting rid of the eyesore of the vacant buildings may help. But we also need to work on having a cleaner, safer city that is more attractive to investment. In order to do that, we need to have revenue. And that brings us back to the taxes.

Frankly, if TESC agreed to pay an annual, voluntary payment in lieu of taxes, to the city instead of the one time fee, we could feel better about this. It may not be the best use of the property but it would be new and inviting and the city would realize something towards its bottom line.

Maybe a payment equal to 1/4 of the full assessment on the property. That would be something in "our" pocket. It would also set the stage for the city making similar agreements with other non-profit property owners.

Dr. Pruitt seemed to not want to consider this. He referred more than once to the city taking up the tax status of non-profits with the legislature. He seemed to ignore the fact that Princeton University pays something to its host town in lieu of taxes. Lawrence Township is asking Rider and the Lawrenceville School to make similar payments I believe. Same in Hightstown with the Peddie School.

It is time for Trenton to stand up for itself.

That is what we are asking the council to do.

We have an offer from TESC on the table. Tell them "No!" Firmly. And suggest something more to the taxpayer's advantage.

Let's get real about this and stop being so desperate for development that we give away the store.

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