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Emulating success: How George Sowa and Greater Trenton are following a proven model

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George Sowa is the CEO of Greater Trenton.
George Sowa is the CEO of Greater Trenton. - ()

Let's be honest: Politicians and developers alike would love nothing more than to get shovels in the ground in the next New Brunswick, Hoboken, Jersey City and now Camden and Atlantic City.

Chris Paladino, the president of the New Brunswick Development Corp. and now AC Devco, certainly knows it. And he’s eager to help in any way possible.

“In the last decade or two, we’ve been engaged with various communities in New Jersey and throughout the country to really let them get a better understanding of what we do and how we operate,” Paladino said.

“What we do, and what Devco has evolved into over the 30 years of its existence, is being a true real estate development company that is established as a not-for-profit. Its operational paradigm is building partnerships amongst various institutions, private-sector and public-sector organizations to meet an unmet public policy goal.”

It’s easier said than done. Paladino said the job requires a lot of persistence.

Greater Trenton: An inside look

When the 11 organizations that founded Greater Trenton came together in the fall of 2015, they hoped to work together to fulfill the potential the city has shown in recent years and through history.

The organization’s first CEO, Trenton native George Sowa, said he hopes he can lead the effort through the organization and many of the city’s assets to keep his hometown growing. “We have affordability, we have a transit orientation, the authenticity, you’ve got history, you have arts, you have big populations here in town,” he said “All the transformation elements are in place.”

Sowa said the organization has completed its strategic plan and found its footing so far. Sowa said he has shown the city over 60 times to newcomers and locals in an effort to encourage investment.

“Part of my job is to make sure people are aware of what’s going on here in the city,” he said. “It’s one of five Garden State Growth Zones in the state, meaning it qualifies for the most help in the form of tax incentives in the entire state. From that perspective alone, it offers tremendous benefits.

“In addition to that, if a company were to move in, it would receive credit from a real estate tax abatement program that can extend up to 20 years.”

The founding members, NJM Insurance Group, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Princeton Area Community Foundation, Investors Bank, TD Bank, Capital Health, Public Service Enterprise Group, Thomas Edison State University, Wells Fargo Bank, Princeton University and Janssen Pharmaceutical, have made capital investment pledges totaling $3 million.

But, despite support in the form of capital and existing assets, the organization is still trying to find its footing while overcoming the loss of co-Chair Caren Franzini.

Franzini, one of the most respected development minds in the state, passed away earlier this year. The loss of her knowledge, leadership and personality cannot be overstated.

Anthony “Skip” Cimino of the Princeton Area Community Foundation and Kaufman Zito Group is now co-chair, along with NJ Manufacturers CEO Bernie Flynn.

The two will help Sowa take on the organization’s biggest battle: ridding the city of some of the stigma surrounding Trenton.

“The city has suffered from bad perception, but it’s one that we need to work on,” Sowa said. “And the fact is, perception is reality in many cases, some of which we deserve and some that we don’t. We are addressing both, so people see the city in a different context.”

“I know the history, but we won’t be bound by that. It will, hopefully, shape the future and bring all the pieces together.”

“We don’t get everyone just to sing Kumbaya,” he said. “We get them to a closing, groundbreaking and we get them to a ribbon-cutting.”

Just a few miles southwest from New Brunswick, in Mercer County, George Sowa, a Trentonian and CEO of Greater Trenton, wants to capitalize on the success Devco and AC Devco have had in their respective cities, and emulate it for the state capital.

“With the formation of Greater Trenton, that’s one of the important aspects that the business leaders in this community sought to have an organization that would be comparable to Devco or Cooper’s Ferry,” Sowa said. “Now that Greater Trenton has been launched, that’s part of our role here, to be a catalyst for development in the city, and redevelopment throughout the city.”

But emulating Devco in Trenton, while sounding like a concrete goal, means Sowa and Greater Trenton seek to compare to, but not imitate, their counterparts in New Brunswick.

“To play a small part in the revitalization of the city where I was born is very attractive to me,” Sowa said. “I know the history, but we won’t be bound by that. It will, hopefully, shape the future and bring all the pieces together.”

The nonprofit, Greater Trenton, was founded by 11 organizations, including Wells Fargo, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Public Service Enterprise Group. Ten organizations already have committed $250,000, with New Jersey Manufacturers investing half a million dollars. The organization is merely 1½ years old, with Sowa having started in July 2016.

“Part of my job is to make sure people are aware of what’s going on here in the city. It’s one of five Garden State Growth Zones in the state, meaning it qualifies for the most help in the form of tax incentives in the entire state,” he said. “We have a tremendous infrastructure already in place. Many cities just dream about the infrastructure Trenton has.”

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Most people are not familiar with Trenton, Sowa said, even those who want to be involved there.

“I’ve conducted 60 tours with developers, brokers, investors and other interested parties throughout the city,” he said. “In some cases, introducing the city to them, in others reintroducing the city. Some folks have come into Trenton for years, and never saw some of the things I showed them in this tour.

“There are so many assets and opportunities that are here. In some cases, people know their part of the world, but not the entire city. When we drive around, many people are amazed at so many assets that are in place already, and the opportunities that are here as well. When you combine that with the benefits of the Economic Opportunity Act, that’s when it gets really powerful.”

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority already awarded Roebling Lofts, a 190-unit project by HHG Development Associates, a $16.1 million tax credit for its $42 million project.

Central Jersey CML, a Dunkin’ Donuts product manufacturer, also was awarded $18.9 million for the construction of a new manufacturing plant in the city. 

And in an environment where demand for transit-orientation seems to do nothing but rise, Sowa feels Trenton’s transportation assets make it an easy sell.

“We have a train station where Amtrak, NJ Transit, SEPTA and a new light rail all come together in one location,” Sowa said. “We have the confluence of four different rail lines coming together in one location. We also have an airport just miles outside the city. We have excellent highway transportation.”

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Even without the help from organizations such as Greater Trenton, the city seems to be trending upward.

New Jersey Realtors and Thomas Edison State University both have recently completed projects in Trenton.

NJ Realtors moved its headquarters from Edison, completing a 20,000-square-foot, $8.5 million space in the summer of 2016.

CEO Jarrod Grasso said the move made sense on a number of levels.

“To be in the heart of a city and to have the parking that we have is just phenomenal,” he said. “A lot of people know of Trenton, but they’ve never been to Trenton and the significance of the architecture around here.

“This is a very historic city and people have never taken the opportunity and now that we’ve had a lot of meetings here, the members are seeing it.”

Thomas Edison State University is based in Trenton, but Vice President of Public Affairs John Thurber said the school specifically wanted to increase its presence in the city when it was looking to increase enrollment for its accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program by building a new school for the program.

In September 2016, the university completed its $26 million, 32,000-square-foot building with the help of the 2012 Building our Future Bond Act.

“One of the themes for us from our president: real respect and appreciation for the history of Trenton,” Thurber said. “The architecture of Trenton. Our role as conservators of historic buildings is reflected back in the design of the building.”

Next up for Trenton will be the Roebling Lofts. HHG said it will deliver 190 loft units by June.

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Paladino would like nothing more than to see Trenton explode with new development and opportunities.

But, as the head of Devco for more than 20 years, he knows there’s a lot that needs to get done.

The transportation situation is a plus, he said. As is the help from the EDA.

The city, and Sowa, will need more than that, he said.

“Their challenge is to take the public policy goals that have been established by policy makers, the mayor, the city council, the state government, the county government and create an implementation strategy that leverages their assets,” Paladino said.

“You engage in the policy-making process so that the programs work for the policy goals you’re trying to meet, so you engage in the process in Trenton. When the dust settles, and there’s new programs, you just want to be better than anybody else in utilizing them.”

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Mario Marroquin

Mario Marroquin


Mario Marroquin covers real estate. A native of El Salvador, Mario is bilingual in English and Spanish. He graduated from Penn State University and worked in Pennsylvania before moving to New Jersey. His email is mariom@njbiz.com.

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