This year is Mayor Peter Cantu’s 43rd consecutive year on Township Committee and his 37th as mayor of Plainsboro.
Throughout the decades, Cantu has placed an indelible stamp on the community and guided the township to the forefront in Central New Jersey in open space preservation, planning and zoning and financial planning. While other towns have suffered declines in economic activity as a result of the Great Recession, Plainsboro has continued to thrive.
The WWP News sat down with Cantu to discuss what’s in store for the township in the coming year, and to look back on some of the policies that have made the township so successful.
Tell me a little about the state of Plainsboro Township.
Plainsboro is a pretty predictable community. Our focus traditionally has been on strong financial performance, which we’re proud to say we’ve achieved over a number of years. We’re probably among 26 or 27 communities in the state with the highest bond rating (AAA), and we’re proud of that.
Additionally, at last count we had the lowest municipal tax rate in Middlesex County and we want to retain that if we can. It’s always a challenge. We have high tax collection rates and we have maintained a very good currency with regard to our ratable base. That’s important, because it helps preclude — it doesn’t eliminate — the possibility for challenges to your tax base, but it helps.
For years we have been doing a look forward five year financial plan that assists us. It assists us in ringing bell if there’s something out there that can hurt us. It gives us an opportunity to make changes.
We’re also a community that has put a lot of focus on planning. We have been very committed for years to open-space preservation and to develop a strong economic base.
We’ve had some good news on the economic development front. As part of the hospital redevelopment area, there’s a 100-unit assisted living facility, which will be under construction, in all likelihood, this year. There’s an adult and child day care facility as part of that redevelopment area, which is approved and that should also be under construction in 2017.
We also have a 300-unit, age-restricted housing project, which is still in the planning board, but is moving forward in a very positive direction.
Where is this in town?
It’s in the 160-acre hospital redevelopment area on the other side of Plainsboro Road, the side where Firmenich is. In all likelihood, if everything goes well, and it seems to be going well, it will be under construction this year.
In the Forrestal Center, ground has been broken for a 125,000-square-foot recreational facility. It’s a high-end spa. An outfit called Lifetime Fitness, which has a number of these facilities around the state, and around the country.
It will have multiple swimming pools, exercise equipment, eating facilities, all contained within the facility.
Is there anything going on in the town center area?
We just opened three new retail facilities there. Panera Bread, Five Guys hamburgers and a Pet Valu store as part of one building. I’ve been in all of those facilities and they seem to be doing really well.
It’s been a tough road for a lot of retail facilities [but] I think these add some vitality to that area.
We’re also delighted that they’ve finally landed an occupant for the former Super Fresh store. It’s a Food Emporium, and it falls under umbrella of Key Foods. They’re similar to Shop Rite from a standpoint that they have different franchise holders. This is part of a group of seven or eight (stores) that this individual franchisee has. I understand that Food Emporium has three or four concepts for their stores and this is the higher-end concept.
They’ve signed their lease and they’re in the process of dividing the space. They’re taking 45,000 of what was 60,000 square feet. I think they’re close to embarking on the fit-up. I think it’s probably looking at late spring or early summer. That’s been something that this community wanted.
Is there anything happening at Forrestal Village?
Forrestal Village was always intended to have a residential component, and there’s been a number of proposals over the years to do that. There’s currently one before our planning board for a relatively high-end apartment complex adjacent to the Village.
There’s also the Princeton Nurseries property out there as well, which there’s nothing going on with. (The property is zoned for a large amount of commercial development).
One of the challenges we’re going to have this year and going forward is to take a look at some of the zoning that’s in place. Particularly we have a lot of office space, and recognize that [demand is low right now]. We need to examine our plans and see if there’s a better planning solution for some of those things that work in the interest of the community.
In some communities, especially along this corridor, there hasn’t been a lot of development activity. It seems there’s a lot going on in Plainsboro. Why is that?
I’ve had this conversation with neighboring communities at times. When the hospital project happened, and they had similar projects going on, we were breaking ground while they were still in discussions. It’s not that we skip steps. In fact, we go through an extensive review of projects to get comfortable.
A project that gets held up in the planning process or political fighting can cost a developer a lot of money.
It does, and I think people underestimate the value of predictability in the approval process.
There’s also not a lot of political fighting that goes on in the community.
We try to maintain a political understanding of what’s going on in the community. We do polling, regardless of whether we have opposition, and try to understand how people feel about things.
The most gratifying thing is that when we poll folks, we ask the typical political question, “Do you feel the community is going in the right direction or wrong direction?” We have numbers that say 75 or 80 percent think we are going in the right direction. I’ve had pollsters tell me that you don’t see those kinds of numbers.
There’s an increasing problem with drug addiction in New Jersey. Is Plainsboro undertaking any initiatives to address the issue?
Late last year I asked our police department to take a look at the initiative that West Windsor embarked upon to address addiction.
Yes, the CARE (Community Addiction Recovery Effort) program, that initially came out of Robbinsville.
There is an epidemic and I don’t think people realize how pervasive it is, not just in urban, but suburban communities. I asked our police to take a look at what we could be doing to provide support and opportunities for people to get help. Also to take a look at the whole enforcement issue to see how we can help.
Some of these people get in trouble, and because of the direction in goes in within law enforcement, it just further compounds the problem. I think part of the effort of the program in Robbinsville and West Windsor is to divert people into a more positive situation.
They’ve been working on it, but I don’t just want it to be a police venture. I want to see it broadened out to include some of our social service agencies, some of our churches, and some of our courts and people that are familiar with the broad range of the problems. I’m waiting to see something back from the police and then we’re going to proceed from there.
It seems that the Route 1 corridor is getting a little competition from I-95. There are a number of businesses that have moved from this area to communities along the interstate. I think it might be due to proximity to Pennsylvania and ease of access. Some people don’t like driving on Route 1.
There’s a lot of regional competition for business. For a number of years, we’ve been strong advocates of trying to get improvements to Route 1, without success. I’ve been involved in a whole bunch of initiatives to try to get some focus and attention on it.
In the most recent initiative, we brought together the Princeton area—I call it the Plainsboro area—communities to see if we can lobby the state to make some improvements on Route 1. It became obvious that there wasn’t money for the grand plan, which would be significant dollars to implement. We were encouraged by James Simpson, who was DOT commissioner at the time, that he may be able to scrape some money together to do some interim improvements if in fact those five or six entities could agree on a plan.
That sounds like a fool’s errand, but ultimately the communities did agree on a plan. Unfortunately, by the time that all happened, Simpson left and the money seemed to have eroded.
Now that the Transportation Trust Fund has been refunded, I recently reached out to the participants that were involved in the discussions and told them that maybe it’s time we got back together with the state and ask them if there’s an opportunity to at least get some improvements on Route 1.
We sent a letter out to the communities, and we’ll see what happens. If there’s an agreement, we’ll try to get back with the state. I’ve never given up. I don’t like to think about it, but the history of Route 1 and Route 1 improvements has been bloody. But we continue to try.
A number of the apartment complexes in town were built in the ’70s. How does the township make sure they’re properly maintained?
Housing codes. Also, we’ve seen—and I think it’s economically driven—a lot of the complexes be sold and resold. The reason for that is that rentals have been hot. That’s also sparked some willingness to invest in upgrading, so there’s been upgrades been made periodically.
I know you’re up for re-election this year. Are you ready to retire?
I don’t think so. I enjoy myself. The town is going well. The people are reasonably happy and we have a really great staff. People want to work here, because we run it professionally. This is not a political community. We don’t appoint people because of their politics, we appoint people who are going to do a job.