This article was originally published in the October 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
For an organization focusing much of its effort on advocacy for its members, the idea of moving New Jersey Realtors to 10 Hamilton Avenue in Trenton last year, after a 30-year stint in Edison made a lot of sense. “We want to be close to the government process,” CEO Jarrod Grasso says, noting that a trip to the capital used to take all day.
The idea for the move came up as the association was developing a strategic plan about seven years ago. Technological changes, the realtors realized, meant that the original reason for choosing Edison — having a central location — no longer held because meetings and educational opportunities for members could now happen via webinars or online conferencing.
Their next question was whether they could find a suitable property in the Trenton area. At the suggestion of the Trenton mayor’s office, they contacted the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), which owned several properties.
The MCIA had recently cleared out a lot it owned at the intersection of Broad Street and Hamilton Avenue, adjacent to the MCIA’s own office, that appeared to meet New Jersey Realtors’ requirements: it was in the heart of Trenton, with the State House a half mile from its front door, and NJ Realtors could have 65 dedicated spaces in the 500-space parking lot of the Sun National Bank Center across the street.
New Jersey Realtors also wanted to take advantage of the potential it saw in the capital. “We feel strongly that the Trenton area and the city of Trenton are making some crucial improvements to make it an even greater city,” Grasso says. “I think it’s going to have a real renaissance in the next several years.”
Grasso concedes that some people may associate a stigma with Trenton, but “look past that and it’s a great experience,” he says. People on his staff can walk to work from either the light rail station or the Trenton train station. Those who drive to work enjoy convenient parking. “To be located in an urban area and not have to pay a premium for parking is a major attraction,” says Grasso.
Numerous lunchtime destinations are within walking distance, including Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, 128 West State Street cafe, and Trenton Social, which is right across the street.
Grasso sees New Jersey Realtors’ 20,000-square-foot, $8.5 million building as an anchor for the neighborhood’s redevelopment. Its 20 employees occupy the second and third floors, approximately 15,000 square feet. The first floor is leasable space.
Grasso declines to reveal the exact rental rates being asked, but says that the space consists of two suites of about 2,500 square feet each. One facing Broad Street could be divided into smaller units. The one on the Hamilton Avenue side opens onto an outdoor plaza of about 1,700 square feet. The outdoor space could be tied to the lease of the interior space and could be suitable for outdoor dining.
Another important anchor for the neighborhood is the Roebling Lofts development around the corner, which will be a mixed-use area with residential and commercial components. Grasso also sees great potential in the Sun Center: “I am hoping the arena across the street is working toward building some more visible performances — more attractions for people to come into the area,” he says. And finally he is proud to be right down street from the Trenton Thunder, the minor league baseball team.
For Grasso, the redevelopment aspect of the move was at the forefront. “When we made the move, we were not looking at the impact we’d have or the access, but it was us being part of investing in the city of Trenton.”
Grasso’s organization represents realtors, not real estate licensees. “Realtors” is a term trademarked in 1949 by the national association, which formed in 1908. As with other professional organizations, the purpose of this term, he says, is “to create a more professional profile for a person who subscribes to a higher code of ethics.” New Jersey Realtors, which has approximately 48,000 members, covers primarily residential but also some commercial realtors.
Grasso grew up in Toms River. His father worked in the mom and pop appliance store that Grasso’s grandparents had started and later was vice president of the Appliance Dealers Cooperative, which, Grasso explains, “is a way for mom and pop appliance stores to work together to do purchasing to compete against big box stores.” His mother, a social worker, was director of human services in Ocean County, an appointed position, and is now running St. Valentine’s House, a home for handicapped individuals who work within the Point Pleasant community.
Grasso went to Castleton University in Vermont, where he was heavily involved in student government and was president his senior year. A sociology and history major, he played lacrosse and did a lot of recreational skiing.
His mother was heavily involved in New Jersey politics, and he remembers going to different events with her. “I always took to politics,” he said. He got an internship with U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District at his Washington, D.C., office — Grasso’s mother helped open the door. He worked for Smith for four or five months while putting his resume out for other jobs.
As a constituent services provider, he responded to constituent questions after doing careful research, and back in 1996 he did that by writing letters. What stayed with him from that job was “taking time to appreciate what people have to say, the differences in opinions, and having a thoughtful discussion on the issues.”
One of his resumes went to the speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, Jack Collins, who brought him in for an interview with Don Sico, executive director of the New Jersey Assembly Majority office, and Sico offered him a job as policy analyst for the banking and insurance and labor committees. “That taught me about being on top of the issues and understanding how the issues affect individuals,” he says.
At that time Christine Todd Whitman was governor, and he was a staff member doing research to help Assembly members craft the automobile insurance reform legislation. “It showed me the inner workings of the state system of politics, how the Republicans interact with the Democrats, and how you interact with the governor’s office,” Grasso says. “You all have to negotiate and compromise and come up with a plan that is best for the entire state and everybody.”
After three years with the Assembly Majority office, Grasso was offered an opportunity to work for New Jersey Realtors. He started work in 1999 as New Jersey Realtors’ chief lobbyist. In 2002 Grasso was promoted to vice president of government affairs, and at the same time Joyce Andreoli was promoted internally to become CEO. When she decided to retire in 2008, the search committee asked if he was interested in becoming CEO. He was.
Incorporated in 1917 as the Real Estate League of New Jersey, New Jersey Realtors is celebrating its centennial this year and has created a book of the history of the association. Looking back over that history, Grasso says, “We went from a predominantly male-driven organization in the early 1900s to a predominantly female-driven organization now.”
“That is one of the greatest things about this group — people have the opportunity to rise up and run this organization, and the services we provide out there are fantastic. You are advocating for home ownership; it is a great feeling — you are advocating for something people strive to have.”
New Jersey Realtors, 10 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton 08611. 609-341-7100. Jarrod C. Grasso, CEO. njrealtor.com.