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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Town Hall on development brings PILOT, jobs, other questions

Mayor Mapp and members of his economic development team
gave an overview and answered questions at the Town Hall.
Mayor Mapp's Town Hall on economic development in Plainfield brought many questions from attendees, focused mainly on the use of PILOTs, the question of jobs and the likelihood of gentrification.

The meeting last Thursday at the Plainfield Senior Center was well-attended by senior staff and cabinet members. (Folks joshed good-naturedly with DPW Superintendent John Louise, who was in full business suit and tie; he also got the most applause when staff was introduced.)

Council members Diane Toliver, Cory Storch and Bridget Rivers were in attendance. (Councilor Williams teaches on Thursday evenings at Essex County College.)

Mayor Mapp spent the first portion of the meeting introducing the city's new smartphone application, the Mapp App (available for download for iPhone here, and Android here). It is also available through links on the city's freshly redesigned website here.

The  Mapp App gives residents, visitors and prospective businesses and developers complete access to the city's website and digital services through their smartphones. While the app may appeal at first to the young and the geeky, this the way information will be delivered more readily as time goes by and desktop computers fade in importance as a platform.

The bulk of the evening was given over to presentations by the administration's economic development team, with Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development Carlos Sanchez taking the lead.

The overview of development, redevelopment and rehab activities showed the city to be busy indeed. Sanchez noted that last year there were 35 projects on the books and as of October this yearm, 66 projects were in the works (either in the planning approval stages, permitting, or construction).

These will lead to more than 1,000 new one- and two-bedroom apartments and 270,000 square feet of commercial space when completed. Sanchez estimates the total investment to be in the neighborhood of $140 million. All this is welcome news for those who have been waiting for years for things to start happening.

However, the good news did not come without some serious questions from the audience.

While planners and officials insist that the apartments coming on line -- one and two bedroom units -- will not be attractive for families, many residents are skeptical of these claims. As one put it, "they move in and then, before you know it, [the woman] gets pregnant." Staff insisted that as children come into the picture, couples will move on to other arrangements -- like buying a home.

Some of this appears to be wishful thinking from my point of view. Consider the paradox of the "walking wallets" (to use one developer's metaphor) that everyone is salivating over. If the desirability of having high-spending Millienials move into these new units, paying higher rents (that will produce upward pressure on other rent rates in the city), and spending their cash in new stores, restaurants and other businesses, how will they save the money necessary to buy a house?

Also, no marketing studies have been introduced to show the level of demand for new apartments. So, are we in a "if we build it, they will come" state of mind that can lead to over-speculation?

There were also questions about job development.

While planners and officials have taken great care to point out the range of construction jobs that will be generated, and setting up conditions to maximize opportunities for local labor, these jobs eventually go away once the project is completed.

So, it seems fair and reasonable to ask how many permanent jobs for locals will be the result of the development efforts. Numbers there are more modest, almost to the vanishing point.

Traditionally, economic development has been thought of as helping the residential portion of the tax base by bringing in new commercial operations (and thereby more jobs) and/or new manufacturing opportunities (and also thereby new jobs). Residential-only development does not do this (as is the case with the South Avenue Gateway project).

I think there is an opportunity in the manufacturing sector that Plainfield should pay attention to, and Papp Iron Works on South Second Street is a prime example of what could be done. In this case, an existing manufacturing company was enticed to Plainfield because of an appropriately sized location, with good access to transportation networks.

PILOTs, the perennial development tool, also got their share of attention from attendees.

It seems quite clear to me that planners and officials have more ground to cover here. In nearly twenty years of listening to these discussions, one has to ask why residents come with the same questions (are they fair? what about the schools? why do we have to use them?), and are given the same answers (yes, the schools are not cheated, and 'because').

Is there an opportunity here to use the newly spiffed up website to provide handy -- and permanent -- answers to the issues around PILOTs? I think so.

There were other suggestions and concerns (can the Mapp App be used to promoted Plainfield's cultural richness? what about 'those people' gathering on Front Street? are police paying attention to truck and traffic issues around the old Mack plant?).

Attendance was lighter than usual, with perhaps only two thirds of the room filled as opposed to standing room only at the last Town Hall held there. Could it be because the topics were of less general concern? Or because we are in the holiday shopping season? Or both?

In any event, these Town Halls are a proven method for reaching out to the community. Let's have more!

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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