Conference to Focus on Suburbs' Challenges
By HUGH R. MORLEY and ALLISON PRIES
Fifty years ago, North Jersey's population surged as city dwellers flocked to enjoy the space and tranquility of suburbia, bringing new businesses with them.
Now, as the suburbs reach middle age, they face economic problems similar to those faced by cities, and suburban business owners are looking for help.
More than 100 business leaders, mayors and educators are expected to gather in Teaneck today to discuss how to stoke suburban economic growth.
Organizers of the conference say suburban businesses -- like their urban counterparts -- have to contend with aging infrastructure, congestion, poor mass transportation and environmentally contaminated land.
Yet urban areas get economic development assistance that isn't available to the suburbs, they say.
The state, for instance, has 32 Urban Enterprise Zones, which are designed to lure businesses and customers to distressed areas by charging half the standard sales tax rate of 7 percent. In September, Governor Corzine unveiled his economic development plan that proposed a $185 million fund to invest in, and make loans to, urban-based small businesses.
"We think that the first suburbs have as many challenges, or similar challenges, as the urban communities," said Andrew Weber, general counsel for the New Jersey Council of Mayors, which organized the conference. "We hope this will be the first step towards a policy dealing with economic development of the suburbs."
Such a move would help not only the suburbs but the cities, by sparking suburban commercial growth to help shrink property taxes, he said.
The summit at Fairleigh Dickinson University will be moderated by Gary Rose, head of Corzine's Office of Economic Growth. Scheduled topics for discussion include transportation, how to grow small businesses and what to do with industry-contaminated sites, or brownfields.
Many of the problems are a legacy of the past. Census figures show that most suburban towns saw growth in the 1920s and 1930s, and then a significant boom in the 1950s and 1960s that has left them with aging roads, housing stock and commercial buildings.
As the population grew, businesses moved to the region, eager to take advantage of the vast space available and to set up shop close to the bedroom communities where their employees lived.
Today, little or no developable land is available for new businesses or homes, and land that is available is often environmentally tainted.
Fair Lawn Mayor Martin Etler, who plans to attend today's summit, cited a plan to demolish a former chemical manufacturing facility and turn it into 178 town houses. A key obstacle facing the developer is the benzene and other chemicals that contaminate the soil and groundwater beneath the plant.
"Almost every place you touch over here in Fair Lawn has a problem with it," Etler said.
Elsewhere, municipal officials are looking to reinvigorate their shopping districts, most of which have struggled in the face of competition from large malls that sprang up across the region after the Bergen Mall and Garden State Plaza opened in the late 1950s.
Closter Mayor Fred Pitofsky hopes to bring entrepreneurs with some new ideas to his downtown area, which is home to more than 20 nail salons and several Korean restaurants.
"There's not enough diversity of businesses," said Pitofsky. "We could use a bookstore and some other new types of businesses."
Closter is typical of many of North Jersey's aging suburbs. It saw most of its growth in the mid-1900s -- including a 130 percent population jump from 1950 to 1960.
Since then, things have slowed considerably. The chamber of commerce was dormant for more than a decade, and many older businesses have shuttered.
Pitofsky and others are working to turn things around. The chamber has been reborn this year with a core group of 20 members. Two new businesses are expected to open next week, and the local Kmart held a grand reopening after a more than $1 million makeover.
"I think Closter is at the beginning of a new period," said Charles Cuyulis, president of the chamber of commerce.
Englewood Mayor Michael Wilds said the city revitalized its downtown -- which was crime-ridden and neglected in the 1970s -- by persuading developers to restore dilapidated buildings.
The city then worked to entice chains such as Anne Taylor and Starbucks into opening outlets.
"We learned in this process, that if you build it, they will come," Wilds said. "The kinds of buildings that we had were not conducive to the kinds of needs that these major tenants had."
Newer, larger suburban towns such as Mahwah have benefited from more recent development. Its population boomed between 1990 and 2000 as condominium and housing developments sprang up.
The township, once home to a massive Ford assembly plant that closed in 1980, now hosts the corporate headquarters of Stryker Orthopaedics and Inserra Supermarkets. A $200 million, 100-acre development of residential retail and office space is being discussed for the Sheraton Crossroads site, where Ford cars were once built.
James Hughes, an economist at Rutgers University, said an excess of office space is another problem facing the region.
During the 1980s and 1990s, "it was the suburban growth corridors that were the hot markets," and large corporate campuses sprung up around the state.
These days, Hughes said, they "are dead in the water."