On New Jersey’s Major Cities

Several Garden State metropolitan leaders showcase their cities’ economic growth, challenges, potential futures, and – bucking a wider state trend – the steady presence of millennials within their city limits.

Click Here for an audio introduction to “On New Jersey’s Major Cities.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, many people fled New York City’s congestion and crime and migrated to New Jersey, with the latter locale often offering suburban communities ideal for raising families.

While much has been written recently about millennials (people born between 1982 and 1999) today leaving the Garden State in droves, many of them in fact continue to be drawn to New Jersey’s cities, where they not only can experience 24/7 “live/work/play” environments, but also have easy access to Manhattan, as well as housing that is a sliver of New York City’s costs. Companies have similarly discovered that New Jersey’s cities are attractive not only for acquiring top-tier human capital, but as a lower-cost business alternative to Manhattan.

These and an array of other trends are revealed in the following “roundtable style” discussion with leaders of some of the Garden State’s larger cities, all against the backdrop of relevant discussions about crime levels, economic health and job creation – and how the overall future might unfold.

The developments and changes occurring in New Jersey’s cities are reportedly not that widely known, and are being disseminated here via direct quotes from the individuals at their very epicenters.

Below is a list of the interviewees, followed by New Jersey Business magazine’s Q&A. The cities are listed below by geography (north to south).

  • Marcos D. Vigil is the deputy mayor of Jersey City
  • Aisha Glover is the president and CEO of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation
  • J. Christian Bollwage is the mayor of the City of Elizabeth
  • James “Jim” M. Cahill is the mayor of the City of New Brunswick
  • Diana Rogers is the director of housing and economic development for the City of Trenton

Q: How would you describe your city to people who have never been there? What are a few of its key attributes?

Jersey City’s Vigil: Geographically, we are located in between Newark and the New York metropolitan area. We obviously like to remind people that we are the ones who are looking at the Statue of Liberty, which is right in front of our waters. But, also, we happen to be one of the most diverse – or perhaps the most diverse–city in America. We are definitely the most diverse for cities of our size; we have a population of about 260,000, according to the last Census estimates. We have a [long] history; we are one of the oldest cities in the state, and we are also poised to become, in the next decade or so, the largest city in the state.

Newark’s Glover: I think lots of folks have a certain perception of what Newark is, what it was, or what it will be, and they are pleasantly surprised, once they are living here, once they visit, or once they begin working here. It is really an exciting city – the dynamism, the culture, the activity – [there] is a bit of a “buzz.” I am thrilled to be working here [in Newark], to be leading the economic development corporation and carrying out the mayor’s vision for economic development, because it is a critical moment of growth within the city. We have a tremendous opportunity to, quite frankly, get it right. … We have a phenomenal opportunity before us, and even just given everything that has already happened, I encourage people to look at Newark as a place to live, as a place to play, to dine or to work.

Elizabeth’s Bollwage: We are the fourth largest city [in the state] with 127,000 people on 11 square miles. Our geography is central to the success of Elizabeth. We are the largest seaport on the East Coast. Part of Newark Airport (Terminal A) is located within the City of Elizabeth. The [New Jersey] Turnpike traverses through our city, with two exits. New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor has two stops in the City of Elizabeth. Our access to the Garden State Parkway is just a few miles away. So, our geography, in the City of Elizabeth, is tantamount to the success. Plus, we have many hotel rooms – we have hotel rooms that rival any city outside of Atlantic City, in the entire state. We had a little saying, years ago, that used to be, ‘Shop and Stay at 13A,’ where you can go to Jersey Gardens Mall; you can get a hotel room. We are cranking up our ability to take advantage of our history with our tourism, with some of the houses where [Alexander] Hamilton went to school, here in the City of Elizabeth, piggy-backing on the famous play that is now going on in New York City.

New Brunswick’s Cahill: New Brunswick is a fast-growing, modern urban center with a global reach, located on the Raritan River in the heart of central New Jersey. While only a little more than five square miles in size, we pack a lot in that space including world-renowned educational, research and healthcare facilities, as well as a bustling center for the arts, culture and nightlife. But what truly makes New Brunswick special is the 59,000 people of many diverse cultures and creeds who call our city home.

In short, New Brunswick is always a center of activity from which we glean our nickname “The Hub City.” It is a destination, a place people want to be, to live, to work, to learn, to worship and to play. It’s New Brunswick and it just keeps getting better.

Trenton’s Rogers: I would first say that we are the capital city of the state and that is always an important thing for people to know. We also are the county seat for Mercer. So, it is important for people to know that we are a government town, and, with that, we enjoy a great ‘day market’ that comes into the city, on a daily basis. We [also] like to let folks know we are kind of ‘foodie-central city’ for middle New Jersey. We also have a very diverse population in the city. We are home to large Latino population, a large Caribbean population, and large African population – an African diaspora. [Meanwhile,] we are a city that has a rich history in the American Revolution.

Q: What is the overall health of your city, at this time, in terms of its economy and economic development?

Jersey City’s Vigil: I think it is pretty well known that we are doing well, economically. We are a city on the rise, continuing to grow in terms of population and in terms of businesses. On the small business side, over the last four years we have seen more than 650 small business shops open up, which is important to us because of the fact that more than half of the national economy depends on the jobs created by small businesses. This is an important aspect of what we are focused on. And, then, development continues to come to the city, and we have put policies in place that hopefully attract more and more developers to areas of the city that have been ignored in past decades. We expect this trend to continue. But, hopefully, it will be done in a balanced way.

Newark’s Glover: There is a phenomenal amount of opportunity. In terms of our economic health, I would say that our health is improving. We are not in tip-top shape, but, overall, our diet is good and we’re exercising regularly. But, we are not going as hard as we could, if I want [to use that exercise] analogy. There is still opportunity for growth in the commercial real estate sector. We are getting a ton of inquiries on the industrial side. And we know from across the country that industrial real estate is hot, right now. And, given our phenomenal location, we are getting inquiries from folks who can no longer afford New York City. Demand has increased, here, as a result of that. Overall, I think we are in decent shape.

Elizabeth’s Bollwage: I don’t know the exact unemployment rate at the time of this conversation, but I believe that we are lower, or on par, with most of the urban communities throughout the country. People here who want to get a job can look in the service industry, the seaport industry, or in the transportation industry, and there are opportunities that exist for the people who live in our community. The overall economy and the perception of our city continues to be positive. When you talk about economic development here, we have worked really hard: The Jersey Gardens Mall is celebrating its 17th anniversary. Hope VI has been a success. We are now doing a new housing complex on Oakwood Plaza, and what we are looking toward in the future is the development of the former Burry Biscuit site, a 12-acre site on North Broad Street, which has [now] all been removed. We are trying to do development there, and our midtown section is finally taking off, after many years, near the main station on the Northeast Corridor. The City of Elizabeth’s future is looking good, with new opportunities for economic development in retail and housing.

New Brunswick’s Cahill: The Star-Ledger has referred to New Brunswick as “The most successful revitalization model in New Jersey, [where] redevelopment has been done with intelligence,” but we never forget that revitalization is all about providing a return on our investment for our residents. Public-private partnerships among the city’s private sector, health care institutions, Rutgers University, Middlesex County and DEVCO represent [more than] $3 billion invested in the construction of new residential, retail, office, educational and healthcare facilities. This investment returns $22 million in revenue annually to the city, supporting social services, government services and public schools. Some of our projects for the immediate future include redevelopment of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, a $215 million facility that entails two brand-new state-of-the-art theater spaces, complete with a new parking facility and a mixed-use tower containing 25 floors of office space and residential units. At the same time, we continue to build on our Transit Village Initiative by redeveloping a new multi-use plaza on the site of the former Ferren Mall and adjacent to our train station, located on the Northeast Corridor, the most traveled rail line in the country. This 1.7-million-square-foot plaza will be filled with a variety of new office/professional/commercial space, exciting shopping and dining spots, and upscale residential units. It is sure to become a central destination spot in the heart of our downtown.

Trenton’s Rogers: Right now, we are definitely a growing economy. We are getting stronger. We are expanding our manufacturing. We have individuals and companies who are very interested in locating in the city. One of the things that we had not experienced was a growth in market rate housing. We are experiencing that, now. We have two developments that are in their final stages of the first phase, that have brought in new market rate housing to the city, and we anticipate that over the next 24 months or so, additional market rate housing [will be built], particularly in our downtown. There is a great deal of interest in our downtown, and, so, we anticipate that those housing projects will be coming along, and will allow us to enjoy a residential downtown. Our downtown will look very different than it does today. We attribute [this] to investments from the state, private investment, as well as investments from our educational institutions that have expanded their facilities, bringing in additional people into the downtown.

Q: What new companies have moved into your locale, and what is the status of job creation, in your city?

Jersey City’s Vigil: Verisk Analytics moved in over the last year or so. We also have Mack-Cali Realty establishing its headquarters here in Jersey City, and expanding its footprint in the city. Just recently, you have companies that have started in other parts of the state, that are looking to expand their operations within the city, like, which I believe is in Cranford. It is a variety of companies, whether [they are in] the financial, technology or biotech sectors. And we are looking to continue to diversify the type of companies that are looking into the city, or looking to expand in Jersey City.

Newark’s Glover: We are excited, because we have a good mix of companies that have recently moved in, or that are slated to move in. On the retail side, we’ve had a bunch of retail chains  open, including The Halal Guys, which are independently owned and operated; they came over from New York City. Qdoba recently opened. One of the larger commercial office space users moving in is Broadridge Financial Solutions, the country’s largest fintech (financial technology) firm. It is relocating and expanding from Jersey City to Newark, and [brings] 1,000 jobs. But, also, we are excited about the smaller businesses and entrepreneurs that are continuing to grow in the city, and that has become increasingly evident by all of the incubators and accelerator spaces that have been opening.

Elizabeth’s Bollwage: SEAFRIGO, a French company, has built two new warehouses here, and is looking at a third location. It is a refrigerated warehouse company taking advantage of the port, with the cargo coming in and out. Fedway Associates has moved from Kearny to the City of Elizabeth, and we are looking at another wholesale liquor store to fill another 500,000 square feet. Those are two large companies that have recently come to the City of Elizabeth. We work with Wakefern (ShopRite supermarkets), all the time. Just a couple of years ago, we built a 550,000-square-foot warehouse, where Wakefern, who was thinking of leaving, chose to stay in the city. The future of the warehousing industry – taking advantage of the port – is still [vibrant].

New Brunswick’s Cahill: In the past 10 years, the city has experienced a job growth rate of 32 percent despite the worst national recession since the Great Depression. The city’s unemployment rate has remained consistently below the state and national average, which is a notable feat for an urban center. Our healthcare and academic base is unparalleled in New Jersey, as Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers-Squibb and the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School continue to grow and thrive, attracting professionals from around the world. New Brunswick remains an attractive location for manufacturing, production and retail companies, and, over the past several years, we’ve seen the likes of Wenner Bread, SuperFresh, Unitex and Spectrum Chemical open new facilities. We also enjoy the benefit of a strong network of social service agencies that not only creates jobs, but also helps to transition people they serve back into the working world, a benefit for both their clients and the local economy. All of this and an aggressive marketplace of entrepreneurial and both large and small business owners all add to our successes in job creation.

Trenton’s Rogers: In terms of new companies that have moved in, we have definitely experienced a surge, particularly in small business development, and we like to look at how small business development really supports – and is the backbone – of the American economy. When we look at the number of small businesses that have come into the city over the last three years, it has exploded. We attribute much of our job growth to the employees who have been hired through those companies. But, in addition to that, we have other companies like Maestro Technologies, which is a new addition to our downtown, bringing in 179 employees. We have two other smaller companies that have come in, bringing 50 employees each. Again, with the small businesses – many of them from anywhere from five to 10 employees – that are coming in, we see growth in the city.

Q: What about the city’s demographics? Are millennials moving into the city? Or, are they moving away, as we hear about so many of them leaving New Jersey, overall?

Jersey City’s Vigil: To a certain extent – and I know that they hate the term ‘millennial’ – we are seeing a contrary trend, when compared to other places. We are seeing a growth of that particular part of the population in our city. Based on the statistics that I referenced from the Census, it seems to be that about a quarter of the population in our city is between the ages of 15 to 35 – or close to that number. From an economic perspective, this bodes well for the city, because it means that we will continue to grow with the population, in its most productive years. The challenge is going to be that, obviously, people don’t stay the same age, forever. We have to account for the different stages of where people are going to be later on, and, thankfully, because we are taking control of our schools, and the quality of our schools is improving, many of the people who are currently moving into the city, or who have moved into the city over the last five years, are staying, whereas in prior years, the trend may have been to come to Jersey City, for three to five years, and then move out to the suburbs.

Newark’s Glover: We are definitely having far more inquiries and folks moving into the city; a younger millennial demographic. And we are also seeing that … more college students are beginning to stay in the city, and that is what we want: We want to capture the students who are already here, because Newark is the fifth-largest college town on the East Coast, and folks don’t know that, or, when they think of Newark, they rarely think of it as a college town – but, it is. And, so, capturing both that, and then with the growing number of incubators and accelerators around the city, we are seeing lots of young startup companies move in. In fact, NJIT has the largest incubator in the entire state, that’s open to the public; you don’t have to be an NJIT student or alum. We are seeing the uptick, and I think that it helps that there is so much residential [real estate] coming online. We have more than 7,000 units in the pipeline. The real estate product is there, for them. It is downtown; it is closely located to transit hubs; it is near Military Park and around the Hahne’s Building; and we have new towers going up across NJPAC.

Elizabeth’s Bollwage: The rental apartments are really strong right now, and we are looking at building a couple of more rental units – 100 some odd buildings right at the midtown train station. I believe that is the reason that market is strong, because millennials are looking for a place on the Northeast Corridor, to have easy access, by train. Also, we are close to the airport, in order to travel places, as well as the road infrastructure, whether the turnpike or the parkway.

New Brunswick’s Cahill: New Brunswick is a vibrant and thriving city, with a robust dining and nightlife scene, a world-class performing arts district, excellent hospitality accommodations and Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey. Millennials comprise a large part of our 36 percent population growth experienced during the past two decades and are reflected throughout our neighborhoods and the thousands of new residential units that have been built or are underway. It is no wonder that industry has taken notice of our trends, such as, which, in 2014, named New Brunswick as one of the Top 10 Most Exciting Small Cities in America.

Trenton’s Rogers: I think, for us, we do have a strong millennial core; folks who have come to the city and have chosen to live here. Some of what draws them here are the local students who remain here, because they have done projects in the city, and they have found interest in the city and want to stay in the city. Again, because of our strong arts and cultural scene, we have millennials who are moving here – because we are the city, and surrounded by suburbs. For millennials in this area who are looking for that urban life, we are it.

Q: What might be the future of your city? Where – if you had to imagine – do you see it in five to 10 years?

Jersey City’s Vigil: Five to 10 years from now, I think that we are going to see, for example, within Journal Square, and within the western and southern parts of the city, an upgrade on the infrastructure, and we are going to see more development happen throughout time. I think that we are going to continue to see an improvement in our education system as well as a more efficient transportation system. I believe that our city will continue to grow, but also establish itself as a regional role model for smart growth and development that takes into account its existing community members and their hopes and aspirations.

Newark’s Glover: I think the arts and culture scene in Newark will just get that much stronger. There is such a phenomenal community, here, with: the Grammy museum opening, with NJPAC already [in existence], and with a slew of artists and creative types already here. That sector is really growing with ExpressNewark now open. The other piece around [our future] is technology: We have an amazing tech infrastructure, where our Internet speeds are the fastest in the country. Tech companies want to move in, and they are already here. The Audibles, the IDTs, the Gadgets of the world, realize the kind of the hidden gem that is Newark. Between arts and technology, [Newark] is the place to be.

Elizabeth’s Bollwage: I think the population is going to continue to grow, as it has over the last 25 years. The increase in population will create a demand for more economic opportunities. The growth of Newark Airport clearly is going to demand more jobs and hotel rooms, here, in the City of Elizabeth. The raising of the Bayonne Bridge will have the ability to increase more port traffic at the seaport, which will generate more jobs, and high-paying jobs, there, as well as ancillary businesses, such as refrigerated warehousing, here. The markers for future growth and job opportunities in Elizabeth remain strong, based on infrastructure improvements that are occurring in the region.

New Brunswick’s Cahill: We will remain focused on our key goals: Creating new jobs and putting more people to work than ever before so they can better care for themselves and their families; creating homes for all income levels, including those without any income at all, so everyone can live in a clean, safe and affordable home; providing a healthier lifestyle and better access to healthcare and fresh, nutritious and affordable food, especially for the most vulnerable and traditionally underserved; giving our children a nurturing environment and the opportunity to excel in their academic pursuits; and celebrating and continuing our 300-plus year history of diversity and as a welcoming community, providing a home and the opportunity for a better life. All of these things continue to move New Brunswick forward as a center of commerce, a center of culture and an urban center with an important role in the global economy of the 21st century. And most importantly, it’s a place people are proud to call home.

Trenton’s Rogers: What we see, over the next 10 years, is a very robust business community; a very robust downtown. We already have an arts, culture and music scene happening throughout the city; not just in our downtown. This is fostering: social opportunity; a kind of vibrant economy through education; a safe city (as we are currently working on, now); and great partnerships on the local, county and state levels. We then reinforce this idea of high-quality neighborhoods and this 24/7 downtown; that’s what we see happening over the next 10, 20 years – that’s what folks want to see in the city of Trenton, and we are working to provide that for our residents and our visitors alike.


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