On May 1, disparate threads of Hal English’s life came together. Robbinsville Township’s new director of community development finally had a job that tied his experience in commercial development and municipal government with his new hometown.
A Robbinsville resident for two and a half years, English had spent the last decade in banking, with a focus on commercial lending. Seven of those years were spent at First Choice Bank, an institution he helped start in Robbinsville and grew from nothing to a branch with $100M in deposits.
In that time, he also became the president of the Robbinsville branch of the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and came to know and love Robbinsville.
English also served a couple years on the town’s economic development committee, and more recently had served on the town planning board since December 2016.
Prior to moving and working in Robbinsville, English lived in Hamilton for three decades, and served as Hamilton Township’s economic development director for four years under then-Mayor Glen Gilmore. During his tenure, English oversaw the completion of the Hamilton Marketplace on Route 130, among other projects.
English’s background is in consulting, where he focused on improving business processes. At the end of his time in the consulting world, English had risen to be the head of worldwide sales for Edison-based Stat-A-Matrix.
English takes over for Tim McGough, who retired after being a longtime presence in township government. McGough previously served as a township councilman, business administrator, town engineer and director of community development.
The Robbinsville Advance’s Rob Anthes sat down with English in his new office at the municipal building a week into his new job. An edited version of their May 9 conversation appears below:
How did this role come about?
I knew that Tim decided to retire and there was an opening. I served on the economic development commission here in town, and then the planning board more recently. It seemed a natural fit. I raised my hand, and just started having conversations about the direction Robbinsville wanted to go, and my feelings and experiences.
All your past roles fit into this one. So, how did you become interested in development and commerce?
Wow, I don’t know. It just seemed to be a natural. Years and years ago, I was involved in some politics, so you become aware of what’s going on in your town. I’ve never been shy, so I’ve always been willing to give my opinion and help out in those areas. I’ve sort of naturally drifted into it; what roads are going to be opened up, simple things. And then, as I drifted into banking, I really liked the thrill of deal, helping everything come together for the developer, the town, the financing. With everything that’s required, there’s a little bit of finesse to get things done. That really excited me.
You’ve said your time with the banks in Robbinsville helped prepare you to be economic development director in this town. How?
The combination of my commercial banking experience and my economic development experience in Hamilton Township lets me see it from all different angles. I see it as a resident. I see it as a financier. And I see it as a developer. I understand what it takes to make something happen, to redevelop something, and to create something from scratch.
I’ve always had an ability to make things simpler. I’ve watched this town grow, even from Hamilton but especially during my years at First Choice Bank. I understand the residents. I understand the area. I met numerous developers through financing and through economic development. Probably all major developers and most of the smaller developers in Mercer County. So, I’ve been involved with them and have experiences with them. People look back. They like dealing with someone they know.
As a resident, what kind of development do you want to see in Robbinsville?
I’m excited about the redevelopment of Robbinsville Town Center South, and doing it right. Very, very exciting. That’s going to put its mark on Robbinsville forever. Foxmoor Shopping Center, that’s the mayor’s No. 1 priority. And council’s, as well. To redevelop, to make it nicer, make it smart growth, make it work. We now have a Starbucks. Starbucks doesn’t just locate somewhere; they do a lot of research on whether they’re going to make money. The fact they’re here helps me to sell Foxmoor and sell Robbinsville as a place to be.
Traffic’s an issue. To make sure the growth is smart growth, you have to make sure you’re not choking the roads and that everything flows and works.
You just mentioned Foxmoor Shopping Center, and that development has been on people’s minds for awhile—at least since the Thriftway closed. What needs to happen to get the center back on track?
The mayor and the council took a huge step when they declared it an area in need of redevelopment.
What needs to be done? First, it needs to be upgraded, if not torn down and redesigned. It’s an old shopping center. Thriftway closed in 2011; that’s six years now and we don’t know what kind of shape the buildings are in. We’re meeting with the right types of folks to see what shape they’re in. It needs either an entrance or exit on Route 33. It needs to be redesigned. There are numerous developers who are interested in buying it at the right price; I talked to one yesterday. It’s been frustrating for the town that the sheriff’s sales keep getting postponed. It’s in bankruptcy. Two weeks ago, it was postponed I’m hearing for the sixth time. It’s now up on June 28.
We’re doing some fact finding—meeting them today—to find out how we can help. Not something the mayor wants to own, but we certainly are willing to go to that point, to take it over if we have to and then find a developer. But, ideally, we’d like to work with whoever owns it and make it workable. It’s a great spot. Ample parking. It needs to be redesigned and upgraded.
It’s my No. 1 priority, which is why it’s up on the board. I’m looking at it every day, right across from my desk. It’s like, “OK, Foxmoor, what are we going to do?” It is a huge priority.
The residents, everyone wants a Trader Joe’s. I heard that in the first week here. I’ve heard those two words—Trader and Joe’s—about 100 times already. That’s not so easy. But it is interesting to talk to developers and see what their vision is. It’s not really up to us to be a business and develop shopping centers. That’s going to be fun. That could be a real plus for Robbinsville. It could be a jewel. Right now, it’s the opposite.
It sounds like everything is on the table at this point.
It absolutely is. We’re willing to take a look at anything. We understand business, and we understand it is tough to compete with ShopRite down the street. But a niche supermarket certainly would do very, very well there. It’d be a great anchor, if we could just do that and start redeveloping it. If we got a supermarket there, we’d draw folks in. The rest will come. The other stores would fill in.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be [a supermarket]. The town is wide open to discussing whatever. But it needs to be a commercial ratable.
Another top priority you’ve mentioned is the south side of Town Center. Where does that project stand?
We have a redevelopment commission. They met and decided on a redeveloper. I haven’t had a chance to look at those plans yet, focusing on Foxmoor for a week. But I’m turning my sights to that. They need to negotiate a contract with the redeveloper, so I’m anxious to see what’s on the developer’s mind other than the plans. I’m real interested in a bypass to Route 130, so the traffic is off of Route 33, just to make it work. That’s the job of the redevelopment commission, and I’m sure they’ll do a good job.
That idea of a bypass has been around for a long time.
Right, there are plans. There’s a dotted line that shows it. The land is still there. It has to happen, whether it be by a private developer. Initially, it was the Department of Transportation. That was 15 years ago.
The Department of Transportation was going to build it, and we were hoping redirect Route 33 and make Main Street here. That’s not going to happen because they don’t have money. However, private developers, if we insist, they could make it from Town Center South to 130, and not the entire length of 33. We can make it workable. It has to be workable.
As of today (May 9), you’ve been in the job a week. But you’ve had to hit the ground running, it seems.
I have. I had a little bit of a head start because I’m on the planning board. I knew what was going through the planning board. As for zoning board and the rest, I basically knew what you knew. I have no details. I knew what was out in the newspapers. But what I’ve seen is impressive.
There’s not a barrier on town borders, and as economic developer in Hamilton Township, you had to interact with Robbinsville Township officials. Now that you’re in Robbinsville, do you think your experience in Hamilton will help when you have to work with officials there?
Absolutely. They’re good folks over there, and they run a good town. It’s a good point that you don’t stop at border. What Hamilton does could affect us in a big way, and what we do could affect Hamilton in a big way, as far as traffic. If we put a big ratable on the border with Hamilton, we get the ratable and they get the traffic. You need to work together. And that’s been done.
In the case of Foxmoor, we’re required to work together because a piece of it is in Hamilton Township. We need to work with them. It makes it a little more difficult, but Hamilton has always been about smart growth, as well. It will be a pleasure to work with them, and other areas as well.
My initial meeting of Mayor Fried and council was on the bypass. I represented Hamilton in the Department of Transportation meetings on the bypass 15 years ago. I got to know and respect them then. And as we were building Marketplace, we were butting up on the border of Robbinsville, so we worked together well. That includes the person who was in this position, Tim McGough. A good friend, and we worked on many, many projects together as Hamilton and Robbinsville.
Foxmoor Shopping Center is what I had in mind with the last question because the fact the border splits the center is a complication. It doesn’t have to be harder, but it will certainly require cooperation between the towns.
Without a doubt. Everybody in each town looks at it differently, so that’s going to take some doing. What we’re hoping is, there’s not a shortage of developers looking to buy it. It’s just, “Where is it in the system? How do we get it out of sheriff’s sale? Where do we get a buyer? How do we move forward?” It would be the developer and Hamilton and us together to come together and figure out what’s best there. Time will tell. We’ll hope for the right kind of developer, with an open mind. No one is going to invest that kind of money without knowing they have to work with all the different players.
Aside from the big two we’ve talked about, is anything else in the pipeline?
This year, we’re going to have to take a look at the master plan. It’s a pretty big undertaking. We have to look at all aspects, so the planning board is going to look at that. We’re going to have everybody looking at it. We’ll have zoning look at it, the economic development advisory committee looking at it, just to get a lot of different eyes on it.
There’s really not a lot. 130 is getting pretty well built out. There are little pockets, little lots, that maybe make sense to combine into bigger lots. There’s very little you can do there. It’s just taking a look at smart growth.
The two big things for everybody in the town are to redevelop Foxmoor and Town Center South. They have to be a focus. You can’t take your eye off of those. We’ll make it work.
Have you heard from any business owners in town yet? Any requests, comments or critiques?
I’ve had some conversations. No requests. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Business owners seem to be happy other than in Foxmoor. But, no, I guess they’re giving me a bit of honeymoon.
I have been up and down 130. I met with one business owner who wants to move out. It’s a business who wants to move out and get some visibility on Route 130. We’re working with them. It is a very successful business in Robbinsville, but it’s tucked away and hidden. We’re trying to discreetly find a spot for that business on Route 130. It’s a very basic, “What are your issues, and how can we help?”