The New Jersey Economic Development Authority has always had a special interest in breathing life into the business community in its own back yard. That’s why the authority, headquartered on West State Street in Trenton, is especially proud of having brought a sweet deal to the city, in which the former Trentonian building on Perry Street will be transformed into a donut factory.
“That might not sound all that exciting, but when you think about it, the company could have gone anywhere,” said NJEDA president Tim Lizura. “They could have gone to Yardley, or Bristol. They could have gone to a suburban location.”
The development will bring 170 jobs to the city at an expense to the state of $18.9 million in tax credits over 10 years. The factory will be owned not by the Dunkin Donuts company, but by a consortium of franchise owners called Central Jersey CML. “They are investing in downstream production of donuts,” Lizura said.
To Lizura, the donut deal is just one of many signs that business is picking up in the state capital, and that revitalization efforts begun long ago are beginning to pay off.
It’s not just donut factories under construction now in Trenton. Developer HHG is currently building the Roebling Lofts project, which will turn an old steel factory into a 138-unit luxury lofts building. The project is scheduled for completion in early 2017. The Roebling development is especially encouraging in Lizura’s view because a number of plans have been proposed for the complex over the years but none of them have ever happened.
“Projects have stopped and started over the last 20 years, but this is a real kind of sea change in bringing in a private developer and investing over $40 million in renovating those buildings,” Lizura says. “That’s the kind of investment that will beget more investment.”
Another company lured to Trenton by the NJEDA’s Grow NJ grant program was the Hibbert Group marketing firm, which is receiving $33.6 million in tax credits to keep 259 jobs in its Pennington Avenue headquarters rather than moving them to Pennsylvania. “You have to make sure you don’t slide backwards, and you have to bring new jobs to the city,” Lizura says.
Lizura also sees the formation of the Greater Trenton pro-revitalization group, with veteran real estate developer George Sowa at its head, as a good sign. “The stakeholders that are in and around Trenton are really creating a focused effort to garner attention and opportunities,” Lizura says. “I think this is one of the symbolic and tangible ways in which you can see they’re getting some traction towards redevelopment.”
Another major project in the works for the city is the state’s plan to build two new office buildings, in partnership with the NJEDA. That plan has proven more controversial, with some downtown business leaders raising questions about the state placing the buildings in a zone long targeted for commercial development. A group of business owners called “Stakeholders Act” called the project a “flawed plan.”
Not all the news with the EDA has been positive lately. A recent audit of the authority’s major incentive programs found inadequate verification that companies were following up on the job creation and retention conditions of receiving their incentives. Lizura says the criticism by the auditor was the result of record keeping procedures, not actual problems with ensuring companies were in compliance.
Lizura has been with the NJEDA for more than 20 years. He grew up in Piscataway, where his father was a CPA and his mother was a manager in the hotel business. He went to Rutgers for undergraduate and graduate school and has worked in New Jersey his whole career except for a brief stint in New York City redeveloping the World Trade Center site in 2006.
Lizura says he was drawn to a career in economic development in the early 1990s when he worked at the FDIC dealing with the banking and savings and loan crisis. “I was part of the teams that would go in and close banks down and fire everybody. It was basically a really terrible job,” he says. When the chance came, he eagerly moved to a job where he would help businesses open rather than shutting them down. “That turned out to be a significantly better experience,” he says.