Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede has a high-octane idea to put her township in the fast lane: go-karts.
During her Feb. 12 State of Hamilton address, Yaede touched on the staples of any annual municipal report: economic development, capital improvements, a general glance at a new budget that she called “thorough, effective and efficient.” She thanked the township police for guiding Hamilton to its lowest crime rate since 1977. She discussed the challenges Ebola, Enterovirus and Hepatitis A presented the township health department.
The Republican mayor delivered the speech with confidence, sprinkling jokes here and there. Much of it was standard fare for a State of the Township address, and Yaede was at ease, on cruise-control.
But in the final stretch of her 41-minute speech, Yaede shifted gears. The mayor unveiled a plan for a township entertainment district on a 19-acre tract across from the township library and golf center. She introduced the concept by waving a checkered flag while former Mayor Jack Raffery drove a go-kart across the banquet room at the Stone Terrace. Rafferty carried a red helmet stamped with a “H”, and rang what sounded like a bicycle bell. The go-kart sported the logo of iPlay America, a 115,000-square-foot entertainment complex in Freehold.
As Raffery exited the go-kart, he momentarily put the breaks on Yaede’s speech by grabbing the microphone to introduce a dignitary in the room—former Princeton University football star Cosmo Iacavazzi. But Yaede took the wheel again shortly thereafter, and began to lay out her case for an entertainment district that she said could be a driving force for more tourism in the township. She envisions the land including indoor sports parks, entertainment venues and kid-friendly arcades, museums, amusements and even go-karts.
A trip to Chuck E. Cheese with her nephews ignited the idea in Yaede’s mind, and she cited that company as one example of an ideal fit for the new entertainment district.
“I could see the commerce going around the room,” Yaede said. “When I left this establishment, I lost my mind and I lost my wallet.”
The township will green-light a request for proposals for a developer for the area this year, Yaede said. She added two developers already have approached the township with interest in the land. Called the Morton Tract, the property previously was being considered as a site for a new municipal government complex, as well as some outdoor recreation areas.
During an economic development bus tour in 2012, township officials pitched the land to developers as the ideal spot for a town center or mixed-use development. Much of the surrounding land cannot be developed due to wetlands in the area.
The entertainment district idea will draft off of a grander strategy by Yaede to bring more tourism dollars into the township. She said capitalizing on the region’s $1.9-billion tourism industry will be her top priority for 2015. In her speech, she tasked the township’s Economic Development Advisory Commission with setting the pace for the initiative by developing a strategic marketing plan for the township, as well as creating a tourism brochure. The township already has some infrastructure to complement tourism sites, with two hotels standing and another on its way.
Tourism aside, Yaede took another lap on issues including recouping energy tax receipts from the state, streamlining online permitting and rehabilitating commercial properties, such as Whitehorse Plaza, the former Congoleum site on Sloan Avenue and Independence Plaza. She celebrated the potential arrival of Walmart at Suburban Plaza, which would provide the Bromley neighborhood with its only grocery store. She touted the government’s leanness, saying her administration has 12 percent fewer full-time employees than the municipality did in 2007, and has cut spending by $3.5-million as well.
Yaede also promoted the township’s record on taxes, saying Hamilton has second lowest average property tax bill in Mercer County. In a statement released after Yaede’s speech, the Hamilton Democratic Club called on Yaede to roll back last year’s tax increase, and claimed the township actually has the third highest tax rate in the county.
Both claims turn out to be correct because each cited different numbers. The numbers used by Yaede are what appear on residents’ property tax bills after tax rate and property values are combined. The rates used by the Democratic Club depend on property values, and will be lowered upon the completion of a revaluation currently occurring in Hamilton. The adjusted rates should have no affect on tax bills because the higher property values reflected after the revaluation will allow the township to collect the same amount in taxes with a lower municipal purpose tax rate.
Yaede spent the largest amount of time addressing the health issues the township dealt with in the fall. The death of 4-year-old Eli Waller from Enterovirus D-68 and anxiety about the Ebola virus arrived at the same time in late September. Then, in December, news broke that a food preparer at Rosa’s restaurant had contracted Hepatitis A. Four additional people in the area caught Hepatitis-A after the initial case.
“During times like these, it is when residents rely on their elected officials for guidance and direction,” Yaede said. “They rely on all of us for a solution.”
Yaede said the township held Ebola preparedness training sessions in the summer—before worry about the virus reached full tilt—for first responders and school nurses. The township sponsored a Hepatitis A vaccination clinic after the first case of the illness surfaced in December. It held several press conferences and public meetings about Enterovirus and Hepatitis A.
Yaede went a step further during her speech, announcing the launch of a new portal on the township website that will allow residents to review restaurant inspection reports online.
She also asked the health department staff to stand to receive applause, saying they deserved the victory lap.
“We were tested,” she said. “I think we passed that test.”
The address was Yaede’s third, and the final one before she reaches the finish line on the term she inherited from John Bencivengo. A race for a four-year term as mayor will be on the ballot in November.