Bert Steinmann

Ewing Township continues to be a hotbed of residential and commercial development in Mercer County.

The Trenton Mercer Airport, West Trenton train station and I-95, all located in close proximity within township borders, has made the township a focal point for ratable-boosting activity that is helping to bring additional revenues into the township’s coffers.

Parkway Avenue in particular is the location for two major projects: Parkway Town Center on the Old General Motors site, and a massive shopping center with a Wal Mart on the Naval Air Warfare Center property. After years of negotiations, the township has finally reached an agreement with a developer on that site, which has been dormant since it was shut down 20 years ago by the U.S. Navy.

Ewing Observer editor Bill Sanservino recently sat down with Mayor Bert Steinmann to talk about the progress of those projects, future development in the town and issues involving the state of the township in general. An edited version of that interview appears below.

What do you have going on at the Naval Air Warfare site?

The Nassimi Development Group, the owner of the property, has just been designated the redeveloper for that site. That means that they can now go to the state and federal government and apply for grants to do the environmental remediation work there, and to tear the buildings down. They weren’t capable of doing that before.

They were named redeveloper about two months ago, and the agreement with them will go before town council, probably within the next month to give the final site approvals. Then they go to the planning board.

Do they have a plan finalized?

Yes, it’s for about 350,000-square-feet of retail, of which one of the buildings is about 150,000 square feet. The rest is medium-sized storefronts and restaurants.

Have they talked about any of the stores they’re thinking about putting in?

They did say that WalMart is the lessee for the big box store. They identified that by name. The other stores are the usual suspects. Stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods and other smaller-type retail stores.

I know there was some back and forth with the developer, because the town was pretty specific in what they wanted to see there. How do you feel about what they’re going to do there?

What was being proposed initially, which nobody was happy about, was just a generic type of store and generic shopping center. It had very little character.

We sat down with the prospective lessees to talk about it. The design of the big box store has changed significantly. It doesn’t look like an old warehouse, like you would normally see. The building’s design makes it appear like it’s multiple buildings, as opposed to one giant building.

Look, am I saying that everybody’s happy with it? Not really. There’s still some naysayers, but I think there are fewer naysayers now than we had in the past. I think people are starting to realize that there is going to have to be progress made in this town. If you’re dormant, than you’re going to be dormant for the rest of your life.

Obviously we can’t have that happen. We have such a great opportunity with what’s going on at the airport and what’s happening at the train station.

What other activity are you seeing in town?

We are still moving at a very nice pace in Ewing when it comes to economic development.

The Wawa (on Parkway Avenue), which is currently under construction, should be done in about another month and a half to two months.

The Walgreens on Olden Avenue is under construction. The building’s shell is up, and hopefully they’ll be open in about three or four months. MedExpress on Olden Avenue has been permitted. So they’ll be starting foundations there fairly soon.

Aldi has put on a 4,000-square-foot addition, and that just reopened. Great Bear, the vitamin store off Olden Avenue, has been a project that’s been ongoing for a number of years. It seems to get started and get stopped, but now that looks like it’s ready to be opened sometime in midsummer.

The Opus Group, the developer at Princeton South, is going to the planning board in May for two buildings. One is approximately 150,000 square feet, and the second is 42,500 square feet.

They have a tenant for that building—GS1. It’s a company that does all the barcoding and GPS tracking numbers and things like that for every major corporation. Opus is talking with other major tenants for the other 150,000 square feet, but no deals have been signed yet.

When is construction going to start at the Parkway Town Center?

We had a little bit of a setback with the NJ DEP. There’s some more work that the current property owner has to do. Hopefully we can get all of those issues resolved fairly soon, and then we can start construction. I know that Atlantic Realty, who is actually going to put that particular project together, already has contracts with various contractors to do some site work.

I understand there are also a number of residential projects in the pipeline.

Under construction soon will be Heritage Court phase two, which is on Sylvia Street. Currently there is an apartment complex there, and they are putting another complex next to it with all the amenities.

They are going to have a community room and pool. In the community room they’re going to have food service, and internet will be available so people can work from there. It will have a fitness center among other amenities. And that will be open to residents in phase one, which are the existing apartments, and phase two.

River Links apartments on the corner of Bear Tavern Road and ScenicDrive has started. That is 180 units. It’s a high-end product, as is Hertitage II, with a community center type of clubhouse.

Also in that area we have Greene 750, which is on Bear Tavern Road. That’s 312 units. That is currently under construction, and, in fact, there’s about 40 or 50 units that have already been rented out. There’s a high-demand for that particular area, because it’s close to the airport.

We have another project, called Stonegate, that’s just getting started on Old Ewingville Road. They’re building 35 single-family homes in the $300,000 to $400,000 price range. According to the people who are building them, they’ve had a strong demand.

As for existing businesses, the Schafer Sports Center opened on Graphics Drive last year, about six or seven months ago.

Also on Graphics Drive is River Horse Brewing Co., which is really doing well. They’re really happy with the location. They can get deliveries whenever they feel like it, and it’s an easy off and on to Route 95 for deliveries.

What is going on this year with infrastructure?

We are making a large investment in road improvements. We’ve probably done, in the last four or five years, about 60 roads that we repaved. And we’re continuing an aggressive approach to that. The reason for that is because fuel costs are down significantly from the past, and asphalt is fairly cheap. Like they say, you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.

What are some of the roads you’re going to be working on this year?

We’re doing Greenland Avenue, Green Lane, Federal City Road. For Green Lane, we got a grant from the DOT. We had gotten a grant initially to do from Pennington Road/Route 31 to Hollowbrook Road, and now we’re taking it from Hollowbrook Road to Ewingville Road. That will have a bike lane on it.

We’re also working to put a bike path connection from The College of New Jersey to our community center on Lower Ferry Road. We’re constantly trying to make the community more bicycle friendly.

PSE&G is making a tremendous upgrade to its power station on Prospect Street. They’re doubling the size of their capacity. They’ve been on a program, called “Energy Strong.” Here in the township, you’ll see that existing telephone poles have been replaced by much taller poles that are bringing in much higher power. This will hopefully help alleviate any power outages, and isolate certain areas so that if the power does go out, it’s not affecting a large amount of customers.

What has been going on at the Trenton-Mercer Airport?

Johnson & Johnson is making improvements to their air hangars. They are bringing in more jets — smaller jets and corporate jets.

We have a company that moved into the old Amerada Hess hangar, which is on Jack Stephan Way, right across the street from our brush drop-off site. It’s called FlightServ. If a company flies into the airport with their corporate jet, they can have it cleaned or serviced at the company. They also offer catering for flights. Plus, they own a couple of jets that they fly across the country and to Europe.

How about parks and recreation?

We’re constantly working on our park system. We’re in the process, along with the Ewing Kiwanis, of enhancing our little playground park at the Ewing Senior and Community Center. We’re adding more handicapped accessibility for people with special needs.

We’re also making an investment in our pool system. At ESCC, we’re doing away with the kiddie pool and putting in a splash park for younger kids. The kiddie pool wasn’t really used that often, and I think with a splash park we’re going to wind up having more younger families come and enjoy that amenity.

We’re also doing a splash park at the Hollowbrook Center. The main building renovation should be done there within the next few weeks and we’ll be moving back in there. The pool will be totally new and upgraded and a splash park put in. We’re not anticipating for that to be open until late July or early August. So we may only get a month out of it this year.

What’s going on here at town hall?

We’re working on our website. I hired a part-time webmaster to go through everything. We’ve started to do the renovations to the website and hopefully we can roll it out soon. We want to make it more user-friendly.

We already started the process so that when you apply for a permit, you can track it online and find out where you are in the application process and who is reviewing it. You can follow the process all the way through and find out when it’s done and can pick it up.

We’re automating the tax office and the clerk’s office and trying to make the technology work for people. In some cases we’ve been lacking with that, so we are addressing it and hopefully enhancing it so people can use it in an easy way.

How is the municipal budget coming along?

There will be a slight tax increase — about 2.4 cents. We’re well below the state’s 2 percent cap on spending, and I try to stay that way. But I also try to be a realist in saying that costs have gone up and we need to stay at pace with that. What we don’t want to occur is these big jumps and drops in the tax rate. I think people understand the need to stay stable, even if you have to go up a couple of cents, because they see it every day of their lives.

What are some areas that you saw expense increases this year?

Insurance is one of the biggest areas that has gone up. We’ve also seen increased costs in landscaping, and we’ve had to buy some new equipment for that.

How about for trash collection? That’s always a big expense.

Trash is trash. We had a five-year contract, which actually is up now, and we’re opening bids in the next week or two, and we’ll see where we are with that.

We invested money in our (vehicle) fleet, and we’ve been doing that for the last several years. Previous to that, for about eight or nine years, nothing was purchased. Everything was really getting run down, and our maintenance on those vehicles was really starting to go high. We got to a point where you couldn’t even repair them any more.

We’ve been concentrating on police vehicles and vehicles for our public works department, and these are not cheap.

Our labor costs have gone up, because of new contract negotiations, but again, well within the parameters of what the state of New Jersey wants to see. You have to stay under that 2 percent cap no matter what you do.

Is some of that spending in the police department?

In the police department, it was stable for awhile because when we hired, there was someone who retired. But we got to a point where we were too far below where we should be for the size of the town that we are. We’ve been building the police force up over a number of years. We have hired five new police officers that will be going into the academy starting on May 1.

We are also negotiating a contract with our firefighters, and we’re looking to do some hires there depending on how the contract works out.

Have you seen a good amount of revenue come in from the ratables that have come online over the past couple of years?

Yes, our ratables are up again. From last year to this year we are up about $1.9 million. Obviously that’s not all for us (those funds are split with the school district and county). But it was a couple of pennies that we applied to this year’s budget. So instead of having a 4-cent tax increase, we have a 2.4 cent increase. So it help us offset that a little bit.

Again, we need more ratables, like the GM site. At the end of the day, when it’s done you’re looking at a $3.5 million to $4 million gain in tax revenues. And then you can start doing substantial things.

But when you have things coming in with dribs and drabs, it takes a little bit longer to get to a point where the income coming in and the income going out balances itself out. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re getting pretty close.