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By the numbers: Bill O'Dea, with just a pad and pen, can tell if projects make sense

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    Bill O'Dea, the deputy executive director of the Elizabeth Development Company, stands in front of a mixed use redevelopment project on the corner of Flora Street and 1&9 South in Elizabeth.  The EDC is involved in the development.
    Bill O'Dea, the deputy executive director of the Elizabeth Development Company, stands in front of a mixed use redevelopment project on the corner of Flora Street and 1&9 South in Elizabeth. The EDC is involved in the development. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

    Despite the stacks of folders and documents that have swallowed up Bill O'Dea's desk at the Elizabeth Development Co., it takes him just a moment to find the sheet of yellow legal paper that tells the story of what he does best.

    He recalled a recent meeting with a developer who wanted to build a 120-unit residential project in the city. When it came time to discuss financing, O'Dea needed only 10 minutes and a black marker to spell it out line by line on the paper:

    "This is what it's going to cost you to do," he said, pointing to each number as he spoke. "This is how much your equity is going to be, this is how much debt you're going to have to do, and this is what the rents are going to be."

    It's an indication of why O'Dea, the deputy executive director of the nonprofit company, is seen as the ultimate numbers guy in New Jersey's development community. The Jersey City native knows construction costs, rental rates and tax credit programs inside and out — and he can likely tell you if your project will work without ever going near a calculator.

    "A lot of what we do is to sit down with potential developers and analyze the reality of whether the project makes senses … whether state subsidies make projects work," said O'Dea, who has been with the EDC since 1993. "And sometimes, quite frankly, some of the best things I've done are to tell people not to do a project."

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    O'Dea also is a Hudson County freeholder and a longtime, prominent politician in North Jersey. But it's his day job that puts him at the center of development in the state's fourth-largest city, one that spans gritty neighborhoods, the hub of Union County's government and a waterfront with the nation's third-busiest port.

    The EDC was established in 1977, with involvement in everything from job training and small business assistance to large-scale redevelopment projects. Over the last 15 years, it has helped generate more than $1.2 billion in new development in the city, including the Jersey Gardens outlet mall and $200 million in port-related development.

    The city also has a few recent milestones to speak of. Early this year, Indianapolis-based Sun Development opened a 189-room Embassy Suites just minutes from Newark Liberty International Airport. The $40 million hotel project, which was stalled for about three years, was among the first approved and funded under the state's Economic Redevelopment and Growth program with an $8 million grant awarded in 2010.

    And in January, the city appointed a redeveloper for an 8-acre, six-block stretch around its midtown train station, which local officials have sought to revitalize for decades. Under a joint venture of New York-based Faros Properties and local firm Mas Development, its first phase calls for about 200 multifamily residential units, 20,000 square feet of retail space and a 120-key hotel with 10,000 square feet of conference space.

    O'Dea just has to make the numbers work, something redevelopment attorney Ted Zangari said he has seen him do first hand.

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    "(I've) been in many meetings where Bill has dazzled prospective businesses or developers with his old-school knack for closing financing gaps, using nothing more than a pencil and scratch paper," Zangari said.

    That has helped O'Dea "creatively chip away at a project's cost imbalance with all sorts of financial incentives in his toolbox," said Zangari, a Sills Cummis & Gross attorney.

    The EDC executive notes his father was an accountant, "so I've always been good with numbers." That's not to mention that "St. Peter's Prep is a good high school," said a smiling O'Dea, a Jersey City lifer.

    The EDC has other critical roles in Elizabeth, such as job placement and administering the state Urban Enterprise Zone tax break program.

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    The company also helps finance many smaller neighborhood redevelopment projects, often using creative formulas to make the numbers work. And it takes the lead on projects that don't attract the private sector, such as community health and day care centers.

    That's what O'Dea truly enjoys, he said — a project that, without his ability to crunch the numbers, might have gone nowhere.

    "Those generally are the less sexy projects," he said. "But you feel pretty good when you go down the street and you see a health center where poor families can get quality health care, and you say, 'If I wasn't here, that might not have happened.'"

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    Joshua Burd

    Joshua Burd

    Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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