This article was originally published in the July 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Anyone who has worked in the theater long enough — as I have — knows an audience will think they liked the worst of shows if the last 15 minutes makes them feel good.
Governor Chris Christie, who has demonstrated a natural feel for theater throughout his tenure, seems to understand that “leave them with a smile” approach as he performs his final acts of being the most unpopular governor in New Jersey history — and currently the most unpopular political leader in the nation.
Yet without having a real script he is playing to the audience’s appetite, except instead of doling out the ham — as some showbiz hacks or “hams” have done in the past — he’s tossing the proverbial pork, thereby creating his own brand dinner theater.
So what’s cooking?
First, let’s start with the two items added to the menu late last year. One is the $300 million renovation to the New Jersey Statehouse. This production used a special homemade recipe that bypasses the state legislature for approval and has the State Capitol Joint Management Commission rent the facilities to the New Jersey Economic Development Association. The EDA in turn arranges for bonds to pay for the project and then rents the facility back to the state for the cost of the bonds. The dish works best if you ignore the fishy odor.
The other was the decision to have several state buildings either renovated or razed — with one being sliced from the street and stuffed into an area by the labor building. As noted in the February and April issues of the Downtowner, local stakeholders didn’t care for the taste of this $135 million concoction. And while their review says it ignores the city’s 2008 Downtown Master Plan and recently approved, state-mandated Trenton 250 Master Plan and separates state workers from local businesses and community efforts, the turkey is in the oven.
Now we have some recent Jersey Fresh offerings.
Looking for something green? How about the dish where the New Jersey Department of Transportation will use $15 million in Transportation Enhancement funds to construct a pedestrian walkway bridge from the roof of the State House parking garage over Route 29 to a 4.5-acre strip of land that will be developed into a park by the DEP. It will take approximately $3.5 million in Natural Resource Damages funds to pay for the park that will connect to several downtown destinations, including Stacy Park to the north, Mill Hill Park, and the site of Assunpink Creek daylighting. Missing from the announcement is that it is built on plans and actions that the governor halted when he took office.
How about something with a decidedly urban flavor? Well there’s $11.5 million Urban Blight Reduction Pilot Program to demolish approximately 400 to 500 vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties in Trenton in an effort “to increase public safety and spur positive redevelopment of those sites.” It was garnished with $786,000 to install a maximum 150 surveillance cameras to strengthen the city’s central monitoring system.
Additionally, the Board of Public Utilities will fund and coordinate an audit of the 5,000 to 6,000 street lights in Trenton to determine the design and implementation of an improved lighting system, with a focus on high crime areas, and the New Jersey State Police will supplement the effort and resources of the Trenton Police Department.
And fresh from the grills is the recent DEP announcement of $2.4 million to “restore Cadwalader Park to its original glory,” befitting since it is the only park in New Jersey designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr., the father of American landscape architecture who designed the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. , and participated in the creation of New York City’s Central Park. The first phase includes enhancing handicap-accessibility to link recreation areas, restoring stairwells and pathways, including one along the D&R Canal and connects to a pedestrian bridge.
There is no denying the projects are meaningful. And there’s no denying the governor’s new show and menu are an improvement over the past several years that — as he ran for president — could easily be summed up as Out to Lunch — even while Trenton and New Jersey languished and taxpayers faced growing economic problems related to unpaid pensions contributions, education funding, transportation infrastructure, and more.
But like a parent who ran around, neglected the family, and then found he had nowhere to go, Chris Christie is back. And knowing the curtain will come down soon, he seems to want to close his dinner theater presentation on a happy note. One that just may make people forget he was AWOL for so long, did little to elevate festering problems, and that he will slip away — letting us pay his bill for showing us a good time.