This year, there were no dogs or go karts.
Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede gave her annual State of the Township address Feb. 11 to a crowd of 250 businesspeople, politicians and concerned citizens at the Stone Terrace. It was mostly business as usual, with Yaede highlighting many of the achievements she touted during the mayoral campaign last November. There was no discussion of the budget or tax rate for the coming year. She took a relentlessly optimistic view of municipal affairs, saying the township was on stable footing and headed in the right direction.
But there were some items of interest in the 36-minute speech. Here are eight things we learned from Yaede’s 2016 State of Hamilton address:
All-Star allies – A year after hosting former New York Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead (now co-owner of Hamilton Honda), Yaede featured another face from the wide world of sports this year: three-time NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson. The former Phoenix Suns point guard is now the mayor of Sacramento, California and a “dear friend,” Yaede said.
Yaede called Johnson on the telephone during her speech to ask for his help bringing a Lucky Strike bowling alley to her township. She said she envisioned the corporation taking over Hamilton Lanes, which is for sale. Johnson said he would make a call to Lucky Strike CEO Steven Foster on Yaede’s behalf, and joked he has made a career tallying assists.
Headquartered in Sherman Oaks, California, Lucky Strike has 16 locations nationwide. They are mainly located in or on the outskirts of major cities. Four are in California, but none in the Sacramento area.
That’s entertainment – The bowling alley is just part of Yaede’s plan to establish an entertainment district.
Yaede announced the plan during last year’s State of Hamilton address, and said this year that her dream has moved forward. The administration met in early February with representatives from a company—whose name Yaede would not disclose—and the mayor said the company will be touring the site.
While Yaede did not specify the exact location of her entertainment district, she did mention in 2015 that she eyed the Morton Tract, a 19-acre plot across from the township library and golf center, for entertainment use. Before Yaede took office, the township had considered the site as the location of a new municipal government complex, as well as some outdoor recreation areas. During an economic development bus tour in 2012, township officials—under Mayor John Bencivengo—pitched the land to developers as the ideal spot for mixed-use development. Much of the surrounding land cannot be developed due to wetlands.
Inspired by a visit to Chuck E. Cheese with her nephews, Yaede said during the 2015 State of Hamilton she envisioned indoor sports parks, entertainment venues and kid-friendly arcades, museums, amusements and even go-karts being built on the Morton Tract.
Yaede views the entertainment district as vital to the township’s chances for earning a share of the region’s tourism market. Last year, she tasked the township’s Economic Development Advisory Commission with developing a strategic marketing plan for the township. In this year’s speech, Yaede said the commission has worked with new township economic development director Marty Flynn and the Hamilton Partnership to create a plan for capturing revenue from tourism.
“With three new hotels, we have to have a way to capture those tourism dollars,” Yaede said. “Why? I want the money to come to Hamilton. I want to capture that. It helps our property tax rates. It helps our residents. And it makes Hamilton an enjoyable place.”
Yaede said the administration plans to have an announcement soon about the future of the entertainment district.
The three Rs – Meanwhile, Yaede made a point of emphasizing that redevelopment would be key to keep Hamilton’s economy healthy.
She hailed a number of projects in the township as examples of how developers and her administration have worked together to improve the township. A FedEx fulfillment center has been approved on Route 130, across from the Shoppes at Hamilton, bringing life to a long-vacant parcel. South Broad Street’s Independence Plaza has a new grocery store and bargain retailer already opened with a renovated movie theater on its way. Mercerville Shopping Center on Route 33 has gotten a facelift and has been expanded. Suburban Plaza on Nottingham Way near the Grounds For Sculpture has been completely redone, with a Super Walmart ready to be its anchor. It will be Hamilton’s second Walmart location.
“To have them open a second store just miles away, you see that happen in cities, like Dallas, that have 5 million residents,” Yaede said. “To have that happen in Hamilton Township is remarkable.”
Yaede said her administration is hard at work across the township, including at the vacant Congoleum site at the intersection of Sloan Avenue and Klockner. She said the township has held 11 meetings with developers about the property, and the site recently has been purchased. The developer has asked for municipal input on what is built there, Yaede said.
The administration hopes to guide development there so that it is a catalyst for further development around the train station, the mayor said. She wants that site to be “a magnet.”
Overall, Yaede seemed pleased with the progress on the economic development front.
“We see redevelopment, reinvestment, revitalization, and that’s what’s going to keep Hamilton Township going,” Yaede said.
Getting creative with money – In addition to increasing revenues through development, Yaede said the township also has taken a hard look at how it spends and makes money itself.
The mayor said the township saves close to $250,000 per year by having several township directors work in multiple positions. Rich Williams serves as township engineer and head of the Department of Community Planning and Compliance. Jeff Plunkett, newly appointed as the director of Department of Health, Recreation, Senior and Veterans Services, will continue as the township health officer. Dave Carothers works as the township’s public works director and its emergency management coordinator.
There are 80 fewer full-time municipal employees since 2007, a 12-percent reduction in staff. The township had its long-term credit rating upgraded to “stable,” and also was able to secure highest level of state funding. It has had an increase of $662,000 in grants since 2014.
The township also has seen increased revenue from its properties, like the golf center, Sayen Gardens and the Grafton House, Yaede said. In an interview in January, new economic development director Marty Flynn told the Hamilton Post this had been a focus of the administration when he served as recreation director.
Hamilton Township also retook control of the Ecological Center—it had been bid out to a private vendor—and opened it up through a shared services agreement. Now municipal governments in places such as Robbinsville and Chesterfield, and entities like the Mercer County Parks Commission use the facility. Yaede estimated the takeover and shared services agreement has saved Hamilton Township $140,000.
Yaede mentioned fire consolidation and the return of the township’s energy tax receipts as other ways the township could help residents find property tax relief.
Heroin – Toward the end of her address, Yaede gave a nod to acting county prosecutor Angelo Onofri. She credited Onofri for tackling the heroin epidemic in the area, including providing opioid antagonist naloxone to every law enforcement agency in Mercer County.
Statistics from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office show that Hamilton Police used naloxone 33 times in 2015, more than any other law enforcement agency in the county. During last fall’s mayoral campaign, township Democrats said the sheer number of overdose calls and naloxone deployments in Hamilton show the administration has done little to fight the problem.
Yaede denied the accusation in the fall. She took it a step further in February’s speech, launching into perhaps her strongest defense of Hamilton Township’s substance abuse programming to date.
“It’s not strictly Hamilton,” Yaede said. “This is across the nation, OK? You hear numbers in South Jersey. You hear numbers in every area.
“What we’re doing in Hamilton cannot be overlooked, on how prevention is the No. 1 key. I must be very clear on this. Your Hamilton Township government cannot dictate or prevent someone from making a choice that they make, whether they’re sitting in their home, whether they’re out with their friends. We can’t do that. We can’t dictate that they make healthy choices. But what we can do is work to make sure they steer towards not making that decision.”
She said the prevention-focused strategy is led by the township’s Law Enforcement Against Drugs program, which starts for students in first grade. There are now permanent police officers in each of the three public middle schools. The township provides alternatives for children through programming like the CYO. And the municipal Alliance Against Substance Abuse can provide information and guidance for residents.
“Personal responsibility cannot be dictated by your municipal government, but we are here to help,” Yaede said. “And we will continue to do that.”
Shop local – Another point of emphasis is keeping the local business community vibrant, Yaede said in an interview following her address. She pointed to a pamphlet produced by the Shop Hamilton business group that said supporting locally owned ventures creates jobs, funds more township services through increased tax revenue and builds strong neighborhoods.
Ozzy update – A minute into her speech, Yaede called a story from the Hamilton Post’s December 2015 edition “great.” The story in question, entitled “A day with the mayor,” details a two-hour tour of economic development Yaede gave the Post in mid-November. Along for the ride was Ozzy, a dog from the township animal shelter in tow.
A 4-year-old Malinois, Ozzy played a large role in the feature. He is one of eight dogs Yaede has taken from the shelter to spend a day with her. All eight have been adopted, Yaede said.
“I’m 8-for-8!” she said, drawing applause from the crowd.