Phillipsburg: Not Doomed?

Rich Wilkins says Phillipsburg’s not doomed, and has some good ideas for turning things around:

  • The train service to New York City from Western New Jersey ends at Clinton in Hunterdon County (roughly 15 miles away) to the west, and in Blairstown (Delaware Water Gap at the north end of Warren County) to the north. In both cases, existing tracks, already laid, connect all the way to Phillipsburg, and even on to Easton and Bethlehem (in fact, right to the door step of Sands Casino basically in Bethlehem, as well as the foot of South Side Hill in Easton). New Jersey leaders of all stripes have not connected Phillipsburg up to those stops (making them the last stop in New Jersey), for fear of making access to the city easy for Pennsylvania residents (to be read: competitors for jobs). This has left Warren County, and especially Phillipsburg, behind). Finish the lines, and add service, all the way to the “Stateliners.” Since these tracks literally run next to the river and South Main Street, you’d bring people downtown at least to get on and off.
  • Governor Christie: stop delaying the new high school they had been promised in 2009. Also, stop trying to deny them “Abbott Funds” for running a regional high school (they aren’t regional up until then).
  • Get creative with the Ingersoll land, or at least clean it up so someone will come in there. Bethlehem was going to die after Bethlehem Steel left, except they didn’t. They got creative, and have re-developed that land to make huge profits. Phillipsburg can do it too. It takes investment of dollars, and bringing in people with a vision that the public will use, not some quick buck making scheme.
  • Put more interchanges off of I-78 into Phillipsburg. You ride several miles, past Phillipsburg, almost out to Bloomsbury, in Pohatcong, before you can get off for the first time. So tell me again, how would someone get off to go into Phillipsburg to shop, eat, site-see?
  • Run the slum landlords off of South Main Street, at least from the train bridge down. Pass ordinances and get tough with these guys. Businesses and shops won’t come in when slums are all around. You can’t allow landlords to run their tenements into the ground to the point that no self respecting human will live there, then think businesses will come in. Code checks, ordinances for safety and cleanliness, and the like should be put into effect.
  • Regionalize the schools and the police forces, allowing for better taxation and spending policies, as well as probably better services.
  • Yes, clean up the water front. Easton’s doing it. There are some decent businesses down by it. Jimmy’s on the Delaware is legendary in the area, the Sand Bar is supposed to be very cool, Delahanty’s is a gem, and the 24 Hour Diner at Market and Main is so good. In addition, the train rides that the town runs, geared towards kids, would probably draw more parents (especially ones with income to spend) with kids there if the whole area looked nicer, and seemed cleaner. If they simply focused from the bridge up to the diner, and worked on that area, they could make progress, rather than worrying about all kinds of other areas of town.

Right on. I still want to place first-order priority on waterfront redevelopment. Rather than spreading development dollars all around like peanut butter, concentrate efforts on the waterfront and the commercial parcels right across the river from Easton.

Phillipsburg: Doomed, Unless People Think It’s Easton

Noel Jones has a good post asking what’s wrong with Phillipsburg on its 150 year anniversary:

In this Express-Times article by Sarah Wojcik, the mayor seems to be predict a big turnaround for PBurg, but he doesn’t seem to have any concrete reasons for why he thinks it’s going to happen, and the people aren’t buying it. Apparently the community is told every few years that they are going to get a new high school, but it hasn’t happened yet. And they keep getting told that the old Ingersoll-Rand property is going to get developed by outside investors (which sounds kind of like our old Simon Silk Mill in Easton) but they never come. There seems to be a general lament of insufficient marketing of the steam train, which should be a great tourist attraction for the town, and accusations expressed in the comments to the article that the city government is in the poverty business, something we hear residents grumbling about here in Easton regularly. Considering that our neighbor shares the Delaware with us, is just a stone’s-throw away and will get a passenger train stop before we do (if we ever do), why is PBurg suffering so much that it’s young people don’t even have any place to go have fun and be creative at night?

No mayor wants to say his town is doomed, but it’s hard to see how the fundamentals support any other conclusion. Phillipsburg has a pretty decent downtown core to work with, but you can’t see it from Easton. Insofar as their downtown is going to see any new economic life, they’re pretty much attached at the hip with Easton. Any revitalization strategy hinges on tricking tourists into believing that Easton and Phillipsburg are the same city and getting them to cross the bridge. A waterfront development project would probably have the most payoff on this front.

Municipal Consolidation Would Mean a Stronger Claim on Federal Money

Important point from Holly Edinger at the LVEDC blog:

LVSC submitted its application for a $5 million regional planning grant in August 2010. Although the LVSC did not receive a grant award, the Consortium did score high enough to be designated by HUD as having Preferred Sustainability Status, a major accomplishment. Out of 805 applicants for these regional grants, only 45 regions received the grant awards and another 114 obtaining Preferred Sustainability Status.

The Preferred Sustainability Status (PSS) allows applicants access to bonus points for selected federal grant programs, technical assistance, and other capacity building opportunities through HUD. Recently HUD released a list of grant program where applicants can get an additional two points if they are endorsed/ member of a PSS. It is very important to recognize that while LVEDC was the lead applicant for the PSS and these bonus points are available to others Lehigh Valley agencies and municipalities that may apply for these HUD grants.

The Lehigh Valley stands a better chance at receiving federal money for economic development projects if it’s applying as a region rather than individual municipalities. It’s about the leverage. For instance, there’s no reason the LV wouldn’t qualify for the Obama administration’s Innovation Accelerator Challenge:

Sixteen federal agencies are working together on this unprecedented initiative to drive job growth through public-private partnerships in at least 20 regions around the country. High-growth clusters from rural and urban regions across the nation will compete for award funds. Each Challenge investment will serve as a catalyst for leveraging additional private capital to the winning regions from sources including foundations, financial institutions, corporations and other private-sector partners.

The Innovation Accelerator Challenge represents the Obama Administration’s commitment to accelerate the development of strong industry clusters – like the Research Triangle in North Carolina – that promote robust economic ecosystems and the development of a skilled workforce, both of which are critical to long-term regional success. We’re looking to be a catalyst for regional clusters that can:

  • Promote sustainable economic growth in the region;
  • Support business formation, especially of small businesses, while leveraging existing businesses’ assets;
  • Advance commercialization of federal and private research;
  • Increase exports;
  • Develop a skilled workforce through outreach, training, and the creation of career pathways, and;
  • Integrate historically underserved businesses and communities into the economic activities of the cluster.

This cluster announcement reflects another important goal of the Obama Administration – to streamline government while maximizing resources. Applicants will submit ONE application, instead of multiple applications to several agencies, cutting down on costs and time. Awardees will receive funds in a coordinated, integrated manner that is more efficient and predictable. When President Obama was elected, he promised to change the way government does business. The Accelerator and 40 other innovation cluster projects that were awarded in FY 2010 reflect his commitment to deliver on his promise.

It would be a gross failure of local government leaders to get their act together if the Lehigh Valley didn’t get some of this money. The raw materials are there to accomplish all these goals. The human talent and productivity are there, the infrastructure is there. It’s the short-sighted fiefdom politics and the lack of imagination of too many political officials that’s the problem.

NIMBYs Worry Hockey Arena Will Be Too Successful

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to occupy the scrambled brains of the NIMBYs complaining about putting the Phantoms arena in downtown Allentown.

On the one hand they’re constantly telling us that Allentown’s doomed, any revitalization efforts you want to try are doomed, you’ll never get middle-income people to come downtown, and everyone should just stick to crying about Hess’s.

But on the other hand, putting a hockey arena downtown would be too successful because it would attract too many people and create a traffic nightmare!

These people are already whining about the problems that might occur if the plan works.

There’s no reason there have to be traffic problems. You could have people park further away and have a bus or trolley run between the parking garage and the arena. Public transportation, parking prices or eventually congestion pricing are all good ways to address any congestion problems that arise. It’s not a valid reason to oppose the arena or locate it elsewhere. Any new development should take place in the core, not the periphery.

Panto on Development in Easton’s Neighborhoods

Sal Panto easily refutes Mike Krill’s dumb accusation that he’s ignored Easton’s neighborhoods in an interview with Samantha Kimball at the Elucidator:

SK: Could you talk a little more about how the city can better support the neighborhoods?

SP: We do a lot in the neighborhoods. All of our parks last year received an upgrade. We spent over a million dollars on parks last year, neighborhood parks, and that’s not counting the waterfront. I’m talking about neighborhood parks – Heil Park, Milton Street Park, Nevin Park, Sullivan Park. Upgrades to Centennial Park. A lot of effort has been going into Eddyside Park. We’ve been putting a lot of effort into the neighborhood parks because people need a place to recreate, whether that’s passive or active recreation.

Our housing programs, I think, are award-winning. When we can’t get a developer to develop one of our really blighted properties we do it ourselves. Most recently, we were just doing the exterior of Chidsy Street, but we did 540 Berwick Street. It was a duplex, the other half was so beautiful and this half had porch was torn off, the windows were blown out, the property was just so blighted. No one would buy. We couldn’t sell it for a dollar. So I came up with this program called City Directed Residential Rehab We don’t use it in the downtown; its only used in the neighborhoods. We did three of them that we sold last year; we have currently five under construction now and we just expect to expand that even more. The more we sell, the more money we have in that to do that.

This year, we’re looking to start in-fill construction, where we have vacant houses and there’s a missing “tooth.” We now want to not just rehab existing homes, but build in-fill construction. This not only gives us better neighborhoods and provides a better quality of life for neighborhoods, but also gives the city more taxables. If you don’t want to keep raising taxes like they were prior to my administration, you have to have new income and therefore you have adaptive reuse of downtown buildings – Lipkins, Pomeroy, the WEST Building, the A&B Tile Buildings – but in the neighborhoods, you have new buildings.

Additionally, in neighborhoods we do spend a lot of other money in a lot of areas. Like through the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership, like through the Weed and Seed, through the extra police officers. We’ve gone from 52 officers when I took office in 2008 to 63 officers today. Those extra officers – we do not have any extra officers downtown – they’re in the neighborhoods, because that’s where we want the quality of life to come back. Our UCR-1 crimes [rape, robbery, aggravated assault, etc.] are down to 1970 levels in three years. We are really happy that not only has crime gone down all three years, but the most violent crimes are down to 1970 levels.

Now, the perception may not be that, and that’s what we keep working on is the perception with activities and festivals and restaurants and events and the State Theater and Crayola. They bring people downtown from the outside and all the sudden they come down and say “gee, I wasn’t raped, robbed, or mugged. I had a great experience in downtown Easton. Wow, this place is really nice.” We have to get over that [negative] perception and we’re working on that because the more fun things we have for people to do in the city, the more people will come to the city.

Is Economic Development Really Better Off Under Legislator Control?

I’m sympathetic to Laura Vecsey and Mike Sturla’s transparency-based critiques of Tom Corbett’s proposal to consolidate Harrisburg’s disparate economic development programs into a single $2 billion Liberty Loan Fund. If the program is poorly-designed, which I think we should expect given the Governor’s track record so far, this could easily turn into a slush fund for Mr. Corbett’s campaign contributors.

But I do want to push back on the idea that having this pot of money under the legislature’s control is a much better idea. “Economic development” is far too vaguely defined as a concept, and is often a crap shoot. Leaving it up to legislators, who want to bring home the maximum amount of pork to their districts, to say what does and does not count as economic development ensures that the funds will not be targeted well, and will instead be spread thinly and evenly across the state.

But the state’s GDP comes overwhelmingly from its metro regions: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, followed by the Lehigh Valley, Scranton and Harrisburg. That’s where the economic development money needs to be going. You’re not going to create another high-output metro region by building highways to nowhere through the PA’s rural counties, so it doesn’t make sense to send any economic development money to those places. Those funds should be targeted toward the goal of increasing output and productivity in the regions that are driving the state’s economy.

Taking the pot away from rural legislators could be a good way around the existing political economy problems if the Governor chooses to do the right thing and spends most of the money in the largest metro regions. The fact that the Team PA Foundation, who are strident advocates for investing in metros, seem to have a favorable view of the Liberty Loan Fund, is encouraging. I would like to think that Team PA is setting the Corbett economic development agenda, but it’s too early to tell whether this is what the administration has in mind.

County Districts and Economic Development

This point is tangential to the Portland Generating Station issue, so it deserves its own post. Consider this quote from Ron Angle:

The Portland Power plant is in Northampton County, but the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection filed a petition against the plant.

And some Northampton County officials believe that move was fueled by politics.

“It always seems like there’s an obstacle for economic development in the slate belt,” said Ron Angle, a republican on Northampton County Council.

This is why I don’t like district seats for county government. The county has a limited number of dollars available to spend on economic development. The goal for economic development should be to boost productivity. Productivity increases with greater density, therefore the sole focus of the county’s economic development efforts should be to nudge more residents and employers to locate in the core cities and subsidize dense development there. You’re going to get the best results by concentrating resources, not spreading money evenly across all areas.

To put it bluntly, there should be zero dollars being spent encouraging residents and employers to locate in low-density low-productivity rural areas like the Slate Belt. Trying to artificially engineer development there is actively damaging to the region’s economy. It’s perfectly fine for people to choose to live wherever they want, but it’s totally inappropriate for the government to be spending any money to subsidize rural living or business development. It’s wasteful to spend taxpayer money in ways that reduce the region’s productivity and output. And yet, the fact that there is a council district representing this area ensures that some portion of the limited economic development budget will be spent unwisely, solely for political reasons.