September 18, 2019

Local Leaders Discuss Collaboration, Trenton-Mercer Economic Development

By Donald Gilpin

Collaborative economic development efforts between Mercer County and the city of Trenton were in the spotlight at the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) meeting on Sunday, September 15, as Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, County Freeholder Andrew Koontz, and Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora reported on a range of initiatives taking place in the capital city.

“We do not have a strong Mercer County without a strong capital city,” Hughes told the group of more than 50 gathered in the Suzanne Patterson Center next to Monument Hall in Princeton.

The “burning issue” of the moment, according to Hughes, seemed to be the County’s recent controversial decision to purchase an armored vehicle, about which both Hughes and Koontz expressed concerns and commitment to make sure the use of the vehicle is carefully monitored.

Gusciora, who when he became mayor in 2018 “hit the ground running” with a host of public improvement projects, according to PCDO President Jean Durbin, described a number of challenges and accomplishments in Trenton. 

Among the problems Gusciora mentioned were the cutting of state aid from $35M under Governor John Corzine to just $6M under the Chris Christie administration. Governor Phil Murphy restored some capital city aid, which is now at $10M, “but we have a long way to go, and we don’t have the population we can go to to make up the difference,” Gusciora said.

He explained that because of government presence in the city, over 60 percent of developable property downtown is tax exempt. Another on his list of difficulties is working with the State Department of Community Affairs, which oversees all city projects operated in conjunction with the state. “It’s frustrating working with unelected bureaucrats who think they know how to run things,” he said.

Among recent project initiatives, Gusciora highlighted the opening of a brand new $150M Trenton Central High School; the development in progress of an Innovation Learning Center, funded with an Innovative Challenge Grant and driven by a consortium of five area colleges; a prisoner re-entry program to ensure, through employment with local government organizations, that when prisoners come out of jail they have jobs waiting for them; restoration of New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund money that Trenton had failed to apply for in previous years; and the releasing of Housing and Urban Development block grant funds that had been frozen since 2015.

Gusciora emphasized the importance of Trenton’s collaboration with both the state and the County.

Hughes reported on a wide range of Mercer County projects in Trenton, including the rehabilitation of Mercer Cemetery near the train station, a mosquito control initiative, the resurfacing of Liberty Street, the support of a number of popular Trenton events, and various projects with the Mercer County Park Commission and Department of Transportation.

Hughes highlighted a summer program giving jobs to 127 young men and women from Trenton, and also mentioned the assistance provided to meet vital transportation needs for older citizens. “We’re also working hard on the 2020 census,” he added. “It’s critically important to count every citizen in Trenton to make sure they get the services and funding they need from the federal and state budgets.”

Koontz, a freeholder since 2011 and former Princeton Borough council president and former PCDO president, went on to point out that Mercer County provides services to all the municipalities in the County. “Princeton will soon be informed that the County government reconstructs bridges,” he said in referring to the upcoming reconstruction project on Alexander Road scheduled to start November 6. “The County government is very effective in getting the job done on time and on budget,” he promised. 

Koontz also mentioned the disadvantages Trenton faces in raising tax revenues with so much government property off the tax rolls.