With a new airline at the airport, a major corporation opening its headquarters May 2 and office buildings filling up all over town, Mayor Bert Steinmann is optimistic about Ewing’s prospects for future growth — and stark in his assessment of what will happen if it fails to attract new businesses and residents.
“If we don’t grow as a town, we die as a town,” he said.
Steinmann spoke before an audience at April 9 at a State of the Township address held at the Mountain View Golf Club, sponsored by the the Central Jersey Chamber of Commerce. He told the crowd, which consisted mainly of businesspeople, that attracting companies and developing the GM site were crucial to the future of the town.
Steinmann also said he was pleased with the township’s financial outlook. He said the township had a budget surplus, and would raise taxes by 4 cents per assessed $100 in value, equalling a $50 a year increase for the average homeowner. Steinmann said he had negotiated with employee unions representing firefighters, EMTs and other municipal workers to have employees contribute some of their pay towards their healthcare coverage. He said he had yet to make such a deal with the police, however.
Steinmann said that as a result of more businesses coming to town, the government was collecting more tax revenue. In 2011, he said, each “cent” of the tax rate yielded $187,000, but was now worth $196,000.
“Those small businesses are the backbone of the town,“Steinmann said.
Perhaps even more momentous was the big business that came to town: Church and Dwight, owners of the Arm and Hammer range of cleaning products. The company’s 260,000 square-foot office space in the Princeton South business park was set to hold a ribbon cutting May 2. Steinmann said the corporation’s 1,000 workers would likely prove a boost to local restaurants and businesses.
Other office openings included FMC expanding its facility in Princeton South, adding another 10,000 square feet of office space. On Scotch Road, Horizon Healthcare was expanding by 42,000 square feet and Cenlar Bank was taking another 100,000 square feet, both in an office park on Scotch Road.
However, the main topic of the speech was the GM property on Parkway Avenue and the Navy Jet Propulsion property across the street from it.
Steinmann said redevelopment plans were finally moving forward after a decade of waiting thanks to close cooperation between the township, the state and the county governments.
Steinmann said the airport made the site a regional destination, not just a local one. However, the project would likely have a huge local impact when completed in about 15 years, bringing in about $158 million in tax revenue if developed, as planned, as a transit village concept with condos, apartments above street-level shopping,coupled with a train station and airport access.
Steinmann said officials had considered a smaller-easier-to-develop project like an industrial park or a shopping center. However, he said those ideas would have had a much smaller impact on the town.
“We need to shoot higher than just another shopping center,” he said. “We need to think beyond that. We need to think about the future. Putting in a shopping center will give us some gratification in the short term, but in the long term, it just doesn’t survive.”
Steinmann said he wanted to build a transit village that would last 100 years or more.
But who will build it? Steinmann said that there were to date 14 developers vying for the project, and that the township wanted to shorten the list to three major developers by the end of August, then pick a “master developer” for the entire plan, and have a “shovel in the ground” within 9 months.
Steinmann predicted the project would create 7,000 jobs.
However, that wasn’t the only major development project on tap for the township. The county, he said, is planning another major commercial development around the airport that will be built cooperatively with the GM site village.
Steinmann said he hoped the project would put Ewing on the map.
“The township has always played second fiddle to the city of Trenton,” he said. “I hope that city makes a big comeback. I grew up there. But Ewing is also a destination spot.”
Travelers, at least, will get a bit more familiar with the township: the new restaurant at Trenton-Mercer Airport is called the View of Ewing, he said.
Asked why he was pushing so hard for development, Steinmann said it was imperative for Ewing to advance.
“We cannot say,’We are not going to add any buildings because we can’t afford any more taxes,’” he said. “You end up like any other town that did not have the vision to move forward,and we die as a town. And as long as I am mayor that will not happen.”
The chamber gave Steinmann a standing ovation for his remarks.
Former Republican township councilman Don Cox said he was skeptical about Steinmann’s comments about the tax rate.
“There were tinges of misinformation,” he said. “To create the surplus, they raised taxes.”
County Executive Brian Hughes said Ewing could be an engine of economic development for the whole region, but not to expect it to happen overnight.
“It’s going to have to be staged in an economy that is not going like it was in the ‘90s. We’re not going to get 20 percent growth any time soon.”
Hughes said the county had worked with Ewing in the past, including with the previous Republican mayor, on several projects, including the renovation of the Kahn Bathhouse and the Ewing Senior and Community Center, but that the focus on the airport and the GM site was new.
“We were not connecting until the last year or so,” he said. “It’s great that we did.”