I am so excited about the progress Lawrence has made in just the last year. I was reminded how far we’ve come when I stopped by the Gingered Peach last week. First off, at 9:30am on a Friday, the parking lot was full. Then, when I entered, all the tables were packed. It was the kind of mix of people you hope for – in the corner was a group of moms with their young children, a few seniors stopped by to pick up some baked goods and to sing the praises of downtown’s latest addition, and a few professionals sat drinking coffee and chatting.
So, in honor of the new year and how much progress we’ve made, I’m reposting my 2014 “State of the Township” speech. As you read along you can see progress on each and every one of the stops we make.
My job today is to tell you the good news about Lawrence township, and I am fortunate to say this year there is plenty.
I could tell you how we turned the corner after a difficult few years. I can tell you how the difficult choices we’ve made have made our township stronger, how our new dispatch system has successfully put more police on the street, how we continue to cut the budget each year, how each year we have successfully retired more capital debt and moved closer to a pay as you go system, that we successfully made it through our revaluation, that this year’s average tax bill is $21 dollars less than it was last year, that we continue to grow and expand our shared services…
Yes, this year there is much good news to celebrate thanks to hard work of our council and our staff but that’s not what I want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about where we are, I want to talk about how we are moving forward.
I want to walk you through the great businesses investing in our town over the next few years.
Start in the south: the Farmers Market, where we can stop in on a thriving, expanding small business like Buttons Creperie, small business of the year 2012, or check out Hambone Opera, the new BBQ place, all on our way to the newly approved Boys and Girls Club nearby.
We might also stop at the newly approved gas station/convenience store on the corner of Princeton Ave and Spruce Street, known to most as the old Texaco site
We can then travel past the circle to the rebirth of the Business Route 1 district. While many of you may have recently seen the news that by 2015 we will see DOT move on our long awaited infrastructure redevelopment, our business owners aren’t waiting. The US1 diner, formally the Crystal Dinner, has been revitalized under new ownership. A local favorite, Leonardo’s continues to excel as Robert recently completed a beautiful patio for outdoor dining.
We’ve eaten well for the last few miles — now for some fun at the recently renovated Colonial Lanes. Pick a rainy weekend and you’ll find a full parking lot. Just across the street, you may have noticed that after many years of neglect, the Lawrence shopping center has new life. The new owners have not only invested in the infrastructure but have engaged business owners and the community. Collier’s has graciously offered to host our first Growth and Redevelopment event later this year.
A few blocks north, we can visit the newly renovated Lawrence Toyota, or check out the construction on the 30,000 sq foot Auto Lenders property and who could miss the new investment Mrs Gs has made at her new site, not to mention the new development on the former Mrs Gs site where we will welcome a McDonalds, a Wawa, a gas station, a TD Bank and 15,000 sq feet of additional retail.
We’re nearly half way up Route 1 and the new development continues. Quakerbridge mall is once again a destination with two great anchor restaurants in Brio and the Cheesecake Factory, couple those with the great stores, and I can just see the large investment into the economy my daughters will make over the next decade.
We can head down Quakerbridge road to the new two-story addition made to New Jersey Athletic Club, formerly Gold’s Gym, perhaps visit the new Costco, which was approved by the Planning Board earlier this year.
Across Route 1 Bonefish and Outback have opened their doors in the last year and soon Nordstrom rack will join them at the Mercer Mall, part of an expansion that the owners of Mercer Mall have invested in just this year.
Now, let’s leave Route 1. We can travel down Princeton Pike to the site of the proposed brand new Bristol Meyer Squibb campus. We can travel further still to see the expansion of Morris Hall and ETS.
Back up Main Street where restaurants have made it through those lean years of the Great Recession and we have promising businesses looking at the empty storefronts. Further down 206, the Township is working diligently on the Pit Stop to make it a viable option for future business owners.
From North to South we are seeing investment and growth. This growth means jobs for our residents, for our business owners, for contractors and union members. This growth means services and investment. This growth means that Lawrence is a hub of activity.
Over the last few years, we have seen our community raise its voice and time and again we’ve responded. Now, as we see a path towards progress, I ask that everyone — our business community and our residents — stay involved.
Most recently, I’ve worked with our residents to promote curbside organic pickup. Thanks to residents hard work and a sustainable jersey grant, we are halfway to our goal of 300 residences needed to start the program. Programs like this help make Lawrence a great destination to live and work.
Our business community and residents are working together at the growth and redevelopment committee to talk about to make Lawrence a home to new business, reviewing our sign requirements after some business raised questions and working on events to attract business owners to town.
After working diligently on the Comcast franchise agreement last year, including negotiating a $50,000 technology grant. Our cable committee is reinventing itself to find ways to utilize that grant and reduce our paper use through technology. Our recreation committee is finding new ways to encourage participation while reducing the reliance on taxpayer subsidies.
All of these things make Lawrence a great place to live and work, each contributes to our vibrant community.
But while our outlook is good, there are still challenges ahead. Despite reducing our budget each year, taxes still go up due to costs outside of the control of council. In this last budget year $131,708 of the $170,436 increase was eaten up by the state mandated reserve for uncollected taxes, a majority of that allocated to address the county and school portions of the tax bill.
Our surpluses were eaten up by tax appeal payments made to cover the entirety of the tax bill, despite the fact that we only retain about 20% of the tax bill. Lawrence has proven that we can stay within the cap and provide necessary services. We actively seek out shared services and currently participate in more than 20 formal agreements and another 20 informal agreements and public-private partnerships but, without relief from the unfair burdens the state places on it, budgeting continues to be difficult.
Businesses need a fully staffed town hall to ensure timely permitting processes and inspections. Residents expect township staff to address issues quickly. We work to achieve these goals everyday. But each year we are forced to find ways to cut our budget to provide a cushion for the school and county when it comes to uncollected taxes. As the state continues to look at ways to address our property tax issues, I ask that they look to have each government entity pay its fair share. Towns should be required to stay within the cap – but we must have control over the expenses as well.
Today I am here to say that we as a town are prepared to address these hurdles, to seek out shared services, to find new solutions, utilize technology and innovate to meet our new challenges. And we will do so knowing that our businesses are growing, redevelopment is happening across the town each day and that our community is engaged.
But we cannot rest on the promise of tomorrow’s success we must work to envision our next challenge and our next triumph. I hope you’ll join me in moving Lawrence forward.