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Making a bid to fix (the city of) Trenton Group lays out plans for economic development

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Greater Trenton, a nonprofit economic development initiative that aims to remake the capital city's downtown area and bring new investments to its streets, has its eyes set on a big 2016 that its leaders hope will establish the independent group's vision for years to come.

If you ask New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. CEO Bernie Flynn, who co-chairs the initiative, eventually, the goal of Greater Trenton is to “help facilitate” and become a “one-stop shop” for those interested in doing business in the city.

Similar to how Choose New Jersey operates on the statewide level, but instead with a particular focus on Trenton and its surrounding area.

Looking down the road, the utilization of tools like incentives, public-private partnerships and various collaborative efforts to help build around anchor institutions already in the city are all things the initiative plans on considering.

But like so many other moving parts in the city, it was an idea born out of a downtown luncheon that brought various stakeholders to the table roughly three years ago.

As former Economic Development Authority CEO Caren Franzini recalls, the idea began with a number of concerned citizens who lived and worked in Trenton and the greater Mercer County area getting together to formulate a plan for the struggling capital city.

“(We) all loved Trenton and all were concerned with nothing happening in the downtown,” said Franzini, who now serves as president of Franzini Consulting.

More meetings ensued, grants were secured to better understand the makeup of downtown and area corporations were interviewed to gauge their interest in investing in Trenton’s future.

But while the private sector was showing interest in the group’s ideas, there was little hope at the time coming out of City Hall, where indicted former Mayor Tony Mack refused to relinquish his title despite numerous calls for his resignation from Gov. Chris Christie and other Statehouse officials.

That’s around when Franzini remembers reaching out to Eric Jackson, then just a candidate in the city’s upcoming 2014 mayoral election.

Initially, Jackson seemed interested, but wanted to do his due diligence.

Upon defeating Paul Perez in that year’s runoff election and eventually succeeding the Mack administration at City Hall, Jackson pledged his support for the idea as a part of his wider economic development platform.

“After going through additional conversations, I found that it actually paralleled exactly with the vision that we were formulating for the city,” Jackson said.

For Jackson, what solidified his support even further was having the right people behind the project.

“What was critical in my mind was it had to have the right leadership,” Jackson said. “I wanted to know if that leadership could be formulated and put together. As discussions went on, we came up with the right leadership and the right partners.”

That included not just Franzini, but Flynn as well.

Together, Franzini, Jackson and Flynn all serve as co-chairs for Greater Trenton.

“NJM was born in Trenton more than 100 years ago,” Flynn said. “That’s what caused us to be a source of financial support initially … So we were happy to have the group do a study to see what was within the realm of the possible.”

But as the Jackson administration took over in Trenton with calls for a sustainable approach to economic development that relied on increased public safety and greater educational opportunities, Flynn said he saw a greater role within the initiative for the Ewing-based company.

“We as a corporate community can help him with that,” Flynn said of Jackson’s goals. “We have a shared vision. We have a strong partner.”

Flynn said that NJM was especially receptive to Greater Trenton because it is structured very similarly to Choose New Jersey, the independent nonprofit organization that partners with the Christie administration to help with statewide marketing and economic development efforts.

NJM “has taken a major role in Choose New Jersey,” said Flynn, who also previously chaired the organization and continues to serve as a board member.

So far, Flynn said, Greater Trenton has been a hit with its corporate partners.

“The corporate community has responded amazingly and enthusiastically,” Flynn said. “We’ve succeeded expectations with regard to that corporate support.”

How much of a hit?

Flynn said that after signing on, NJM pledged to authorize a $250,000 challenge grant on the condition that five other companies also join and offer matches of $50,000 per institution, with that contribution being a continuing, annual one over a five-year period.

“That was easily done,” Flynn said. “We have seven on the books right now. At the moment, we are poised to receive five to seven additional institutions.”

Backers and board members already include the likes of Capital Health Systems, Thomas Edison State College, Princeton University, Wells Fargo, Investors Bank and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“There’s alignment in vision,” Flynn said. “There’s a tremendous shared interest in supporting the city. … Greater Trenton is designed to be an organization that will sustain itself over decades. This effort is one that will not transform the city overnight. This is a long-term play. It is not a quick fix. So we expect Greater Trenton to play a role for a long period of time in order to achieve the kind of success that we expect.”

Franzini said that, having researched successful economic development undertakings in other cities nationwide, she feels confident that the right board is now in place to lead Greater Trenton. Not only is there coordination between the initiative and the mayor’s office, but there is also representation from various public and private entities, spanning education to health care to businesses and foundations.

“I’m excited about the board makeup,” Franzini said.

She added that the group has already started to look at case studies ranging from New Brunswick and Camden in New Jersey to areas of Philadelphia, Detroit and Providence, Rhode Island, as examples of successful urban redevelopment for Trenton to consider moving forward.

“Now is Trenton’s time. We’ve seen it in Camden, New Brunswick (and) Newark also — a lot of development there,” Flynn added. “It’s Trenton’s time. I view, based on my limited experience in the economic development space, every city as a unique puzzle and (as) the pieces come together, you eventually make a beautiful picture.”

The co-chairs are in the midst of selecting an executive director to lead Greater Trenton, and a firm has been contracted to conduct a national search for the position.

“The great thing is that, at our first board meeting, the board said they want to be actively involved in the search,” Franzini said. “They realize that it’s the most important decision we’ll make as a board, and every single board member had such enthusiasm on the subject.”

As the search for its formal leader continues, Greater Trenton has in the meantime focused on finalizing its second round of funding and is continuing to informally meet with various stakeholders.

Thinking back to the initial luncheon that gave rise to the initiative, Franzini said it is “very rewarding” to see the trajectory that Greater Trenton currently appears to be on and drew upon the leadership of both Jackson and Flynn in helping to make the dream become a reality.

“It is about having a plan, it is about being trusted, it is about leadership,” Jackson said. “And it is about the ‘c-word’ that I just love: collaboration.”

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

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