If any of those who gathered at St. Peter’s University on Feb. 27 to listen to Mayor Steven Fulop give his first State of the City Address expected the eloquent rhetoric of a John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, they didn’t get it.
What they got was a nuts-and-bolts vision of Jersey City, as Fulop built his vision like an erector set, hoping in the end people would find significance in the speech.
Some did, although as one Jersey City resident said after the speech that it was an inspiring vision if you think “bigger is better,” but not one that addressed practical solutions to some every day problems.
Fulop did not address parking and traffic issues.
Some public officials who have been critical of various Fulop initiatives, such as Councilman Richard Boggiano, reacted with some of skepticism over proposals and goals Fulop outlined in the speech, saying they will wait and see.
In a room filled with hundreds of people, Fulop, the 49th mayor of Jersey City, not only mapped out where the city has been since he took office in July, but where he expects the city to be at the end of 2014.
He also said Jersey City will be the biggest city in the state by 2016, overtaking Newark.
“We were elected last year on a clear mandate for progressive change,” he told the crowd. “There was a pressing need to forge a common future for our community.”
This change doesn’t mean alienating one part of the community for political gain, but rather setting goals that provide opportunities for all, he said.
“In next five years, Jersey City will undergo the largest economic expansion in recent history.” – Steven Fulop
Public safety is an issue
But people must feel safe in order to take advantage of progress.
“This past summer as we took office, seven murders in five weeks resulted in heightened fears and concerns,” he said. “We immediately reassigned officers so more police were on patrol and implemented a series of sweeps, resulting in more than 200 arrests. To address the shootings, we created a Ceasefire Unit to investigate and give priority to non-fatal shootings. This unit has a successful solve rate of 53 percent, more than double the New Jersey average.”
Fulop said the city has deployed a data driven crime analysis system to identify hot spots of crime in order to deploy more personal to those places. The city has also consolidated the fire and police departments into one Public Safety Department.
“This allowed us to cut administrative costs in addition to putting 34 more cops and 26 more firefighters on the streets through new recruit classes,” he said. “When we took office in July we had 760 sworn officers. Including our current class of recruits, we have 845 uniformed officers. Our goal for 2014 is clear: we will reduce crime in the majority of categories of the uniformed crime statistics by double-digit percentages.”
Economic development progress
“In next five years, Jersey City will undergo the largest economic expansion in recent history. In fact, Jersey City will be the largest city in New Jersey by the end of 2016,” Fulop said.
This is the result of policies that attract commercial, retail and industrial development, creating thousands of new jobs, he said.
“Jersey City is climbing out of the recession at a faster rate than the state of New Jersey and the United States as a whole,” Fulop said. “The unemployment rate in Jersey City dropped three percentage points from June to November, whereas the national unemployment rate only dropped half a percentage point. Unemployment in Jersey City is dropping nearly three times faster than in the nation at large.”
He said Jersey City is experiencing an unprecedented boom in development.
“There are over 5,600 residential units under construction in Journal Square and Downtown alone, the highest level of construction in recent history, along with 200,000 square feet of retail space, and 800,000 square feet of industrial space under construction around the city right now, and we’ve approved a further 11,000 housing units,” Fulop said. “The 20 tallest buildings in the state will be in Jersey City in five years.”
Development is not only happening downtown, he said, but also from McGinley Square to Bergen Lafayette to the West Side of the city.
“For the first time in decades, steel is coming out of the ground in Journal Square,” he said. “Ten projects are under way and 23 have already been proposed or approved."
He said companies are relocating here from other places bringing jobs to Jersey City, including Forbes with 250 jobs, and Nautica, 200.
“DaVita Dialysis is bringing 70 to the Hub and other neighborhoods in Jersey City,” Fulop said.
But he said small business is still the backbone of Jersey City’s economy, and said even though small business transformed West Side Avenue into a productive commercial district, he will be working with the city council to help establish a West Side Special Improvement District.
He said his administration has been working with NJ Transit to expand light rail capacity by 40 percent systemwide this year.
“We’ve put 20 more taxis on the street this year and we will install bus shelters this summer,” he said.
Unemployment is unacceptably high in communities of color, particularly among young men, Fulop said.
“Jersey City will change this abysmal reality. Developers will meet their obligations to hire Jersey City residents and people of color,” he said. “Already, we have met with several developers who have committed to being more aggressive in hiring local residents.”
He also pointed to agreements with local unions for education and job training.
Education is an issue
Fulop, however, said the city must do more when it comes to education.
“Jersey City schools need to be laboratories of innovation that break from the outdated models of 50 years ago,” he said. “We are in a more competitive global economy and must think differently. The leadership of our school system must be progressive. It cannot afford to plod cautiously into the future while our children fall ever further behind. To address this challenge, I am assembling a High Tech Education Taskforce.”
With the help of Eastern Millwork, PSE&G, UPS, Goya, and Tropicana, the city will establish a mentor program that will afford students familiarity with applied mechatronics and advanced manufacturing processes during their senior year in high school, followed by intensive academic and technical education at NJIT. NJIT will offer credit-courses both in-person and online in engineering, robotics and mechatronics.
“This program has the potential to be a model for the state of New Jersey,” Fulop said
Jersey City currently is the only urban school district in the state with a growing student population.
“According to a recent demographic study by the district, Jersey City public schools will grow by more
than 4,000 students in the next five years,” he said. “The fastest growing segment of our school population is pre-K.” To close the gap between growing pre-K demand and supply his administration is leveraging development tools to support the building of new pre-K facilities across the city”
One would be located in a former charter school, the other would be constructed as part of a new development in Ward E – which would lease the space to the Board of Education.
Schools need to improve
While Jersey City schools should be a model for the state, Fulop said they are falling short. During the 2012-2013 school year, the statewide spending per pupil averaged $18,030. In contrast, Jersey City Schools spent $22,260, nearly 24 percent more than the state average.
“With an annual budget over $660 million, the school district must do a better job of budgeting, driving excellence, and financial transparency, Fulop said.
The Jersey City school district spent only $116 per pupil on extracurricular activities during the 2011-2012 school year, 38 percent less than the state average.
“This is alarming considering the challenges facing our children,” he said.
The city, he said, will continue its summer employment program this year but will also partner with some of the largest and most prestigious companies in Jersey City to launch a summer internship program for high-achieving students from high schools across the city.
“We have had strong positive response from firms like Direct Edge, Goldman Sachs and Fidelity. This summer, students from Dickinson High School will have the opportunity to intern at Pershing,” he said.
Loew’s will be a performing arts center
“One thing lacking in Jersey City in recent years was a modernized, world class performance arts venue. That’s about to change.,” Fulop said. “We recently issued a public, fair and open solicitation of proposals for the management and restoration of the Loew’s Jersey Theatre. We expect to not only fully restore the facility but more importantly will provide patrons with a higher volume and a wider variety of programming, ranging from national and international touring musical acts to the continuation of silent film screenings and other community events. The last five mayors have each tried to achieve this and in 2014, this will be a reality.
The city will also launch a $1.2 million marketing campaign to help get the word out about the city. Also the city will be launching a reentry program for reformed prisoners shortly.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.