The day was April 1 and the organizers of the press conference at the Roebling Complex were not fooling when they said they had some surprisingly good news for the city. A high tech company was purchasing one of the buildings to open a manufacturing operation that promised to help revitalize the city.
The event, which included members of the Trenton business community and boosters, also served as the prelude to the April 2 Trenton City Council meeting, where Trenton’s mayor and staff expected the plan to be put on the docket and usher in a new era.
But on April 3 the real April Fooling just got started. As the Trentonian newspaper reported, “The $4 million revitalization proposal died on the legislative body’s dais.”
Then the jokes just kept coming. City council members alleged unsubstantiated schemes. Council members and city administration got into a public war of words with comments ranging from the crazy to crude. And the Trenton police launched an investigation to find the artist who posted a satirical sign on the dilapidated property’s fence.
So what happened?
The following paper trail of newspaper articles, reports, social media postings, and research help tell the tale.
First the background:
Let’s start with Princetel. That is the Hamilton-based multi-million-dollar supplier of fiber optic rotary joint products. It partners with other such rotary part companies for a variety of products. It recently acquired Wendon, a New York-based electric slip ring manufacturer.
Princetel was planning to redevelop the dilapidated Roebling building known as Block II into a site for offices, manufacturing, and green spaces for a variety of activities. It was also planning to move the Wendon operations to Trenton.
The terms of the agreement had Princetel paying the assessed $85,000 for the city-owned property and spending $4 million more to update the building and grounds.
As the Trentonian reports, “The rundown Roebling Steel Complex is a vacant facility that attracts prostitution, squatters, and illegal drug activity. The buildings on site ‘would have no market value in their existing condition,’” according to a September, 2018, Curini Appraisal Company evaluation.
In addition to eliminating an eyesore and creating a tax ratable, Princetel was set to hire an estimated 30 employees during its first phase. Then there was a potential of another 370 more employees over the next several years.
Now let’s go to the cast of characters:
The person who led the charge for the city is Mayor Reed Gusciora, the former New Jersey Assemblyman now in the 10th month of his rookie year as mayor. A lawyer by profession who served as counsel for several municipalities, Gusciora is serving as a chief administrator for the first time.
What stands out during Gusciora’s first year are his attempts to get Trenton’s budget and finances in order, tackling the problem-ridden Trenton Water Works, his unsuccessful nomination of a police director unsupported by the police department or city council, and orchestrating a Chinese New Year’s Festival in a city with few Asian Americans.
Gusciora is assisted by chief of staff Yoshi Manale. A North Jersey import with a constantly evolving resume, Manale is a former township administrator for Bloomfield, New Jersey; director of operations and intra-government services at Kean College; assistant director, City of New York, Mayor’s Office of Contract Services; Ikasio Consulting employee; and founder of Opt.Gov, a web-based platform launched in 2012 to monitor local government spending.
Manale established himself after he arrived in Trenton in late 2018 by allegedly threatening a council member for not supporting his boss’s nomination for police chief and then mistakenly claiming his office was burglarized by a Trentonian reporter when in fact a janitor had accidently moved some desk papers.
The developer is Princetel’s founder and president Barry Zhang. A Chinese-born American who lives in Lawrenceville, Zhang graduated from Princeton University with a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1994, created a successful business in Hamilton, serves on the boards for Artworks Trenton and Grounds For Sculpture, owns property in Trenton, and has been interested for several years in developing in Trenton for both personal and business reasons.
Zhang and his career were the subject of a July 11, 2012, U.S. 1 newspaper article, “How Princetel Became A Bright Light in the Fiber Optic Field.”
Then there is the Trenton City Council. The president is Kathy McBride. A council member at large who previously served on council (2010 until 2014) and ran for mayor in 2014 and 2018, McBride was a stay-at-home mother who formed Mothers Against Violence after her son was shot in 1992. She is also remembered for falling for an internet hoax and attempting to rally the city council to address the spread of “Blue Waffle Disease” in Trenton.
Vice President Marge Caldwell-Wilson is the incumbent North Ward representative, retired State of New Jersey employee, and past president of CWA Local 1087. Another multi-term councilman is the South Ward’s George Muschal, a retired Trenton police officer, former acting mayor, and owner of the Wishie-Washie Laundromat.
The remaining four are council freshmen: At-large member Jerell Blakely, a former NJEA employee and now with the state department of labor; East Ward member Joseph Harrison, a state department of health employee; at large member Santiago Rodriguez, a retired New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) employee; and the West Ward’s Robin Vaughn, a financial services industry professional and owner of Vaughn-Ventures.
Vaughn gained some attention early on when her first council action was to be the sole vote against McBride’s presidency. She was also accused by other council members of taping their telephone calls. Muschal publicly labeled her bipolar.
Now the unfolding:
At the April 1 Roebling site press conference, Zhang said the following about his company’s intentions for the Trenton site: “It is time for us to do something to recover the former glory of this building. Manufacturing is something dear to the soul of Trenton. The Roebling complex was built as a manufacturing site, and what we are proposing is to do exactly the same. Back in its heyday, steel cable manufacturing was high-tech. Now we’re talking about fiber optics, and that’s the high technology of today.”
But on April 2 McBride, Caldwell-Wilson, Muschal, Rodriquez, and Vaughn did not respond to Blakeley’s motion to put the Princetel plan on the council meeting’s docket — killing it by inaction.
According to several sources, the decision was made despite council’s awareness that the project had been developing over the past year — with the council president touring Princetel’s Hamilton operations — and that the company was facing a deadline to apply for state incentives to support the project.
So what happened?
In an April 3 statement on the Trenton City Council website, Caldwell-Wilson wrote, “Mayor Gusciora has blatantly ignored the fact that City Council is the Redevelopment Authority for the City of Trenton.
“When he first presented this property to be sold to Princetel, [Gusciora] was advised by Council that any sale of any land or property in a redevelopment area has to come before the City Council (the Redevelopment Authority) and redevelopment attorney prior to being included on the Council’s docket.
“The Council was advised by their legal counsel, the actions of the Administration were improper and were further advised of how [City Council] should proceed.
“The City Council serves as the checks and balances of the Administration. We do not work for the Mayor but have tried many times to work with him. All business of the Council will be done in a fair, open, and legal manner.”
Then other council members, the mayor’s office, and the community continued the discussion through newspaper interviews, social media, and a council press conference.
“West Ward councilwoman Robin Vaughn threw gasoline on the dumpster fire when she accused the administration of trying to saddle blame on the council for not pushing through the allegedly ‘corrupt’ deal,’” notes the Trentonian in its April 3 account of social media exchanges.
The report quotes Vaughn as saying, “People could have gone to ‘prison’ if council bent to the administration’s will rather than demanding the company sign off on pay-to-play documentation and require the administration to do another appraisal to ensure the city was properly compensated for the property.”
She said that there was a need for more than one appraisal and that the developer needed to sign off on pay-to-play laws.
Chief of staff Manele followed up with, “Has there been criminal activity regarding the disposition of this sale? If you have evidence of such, please let us know, and we will provide that information to the proper authorities.” Caldwell-Wilson then chimed in with, “Let’s talk pay-to-play for starters.”
The Trentonian took her up on that tip and reported, “Gusciora said he didn’t have any personal connections to Princetel CEO Barry Zhang or any company representatives. He denied that anyone from the company donated to his campaign, which appeared supported by a quick search of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’s contributions database that turned up no donations to Gusciora from Zhang or Princetel.”
Nevertheless the innuendoes continued with Muschal saying the deal “smelled like a 10-day-old fish,” and one community member asking why “Barry and Co. refused to sign the pay-to-play declaration and get a current appraisal as apparently required” and that “Princetel upped their offer over $100,000 when pushed on the pay to play thing? Something sounded strange.”
That $100,000 question was addressed by Gusciora when he posted his own view of the dead deal on the Mayor of Trenton Reed Gusciora Facebook page. “I’m greatly disappointed that the City Council turned down this opportunity to bring redevelopment to the Roebling Block II site that has been vacant for 40 years. While other towns seem to roll out the carpet for bringing business and jobs to the region, this was a missed opportunity.
“Not only did Council pull the proposal from their agenda on three prior Council sessions, they gave a last-minute demand for an additional appraisal and a disclosure document that was not required by this developer.
“Unfortunately, after four months of delays, Princetel decided to move on. Most disappointing is that there were no alternative proposals put forth and that Princetel had upped its offer to $182,000 ($100,000 more than the appraised value of the property).
“Notwithstanding, we will try harder to bring development and jobs to the City. Trenton needs to send a message that we are open for business and should not miss such opportunities for growth in the future. I still remain optimistic that we can get the job done.”
As Hamilton Township swiftly approached Zhang to consider expanding his operations near the Trenton border, a Trentonian editorial said, “City Council voted to not even consider the Princetel proposal with the only explanations so far being vague accusations (with no evidence) of pay-to-play and requests for multiple appraisals for the property value.”
The State of New Jersey’s website regarding pay-to-play indicates the law was not applicable to the Princetel plan to purchase a dilapidated building at its assessed value: “Contributions by for-profit business entities that have or are seeking New Jersey government contracts, a practice known as pay-to-play, are subject to restrictions. A contribution made prior to the award of a contract may disqualify a business entity from receiving a contract, and the business entity is prohibited from making certain contributions during the term of a contract. These pay-to-play restrictions apply to contracts at the state, legislative, county, and municipal levels of government. In general, regulation of these contributions is a matter of government procurement law.”
The paper’s conclusion? “It sounds more like foot-dragging than anything, since another appraisal of the property is likely to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the first one. And $1 or $85K or $100K are all more than what has been offered for that vacant property so far.”
Then the paper did some speculation of its own. “There is also the possibility that council is retaliating because the relationship between mayor and council has been … difficult. Gusciora has accused council of slowing the process and council has accused the mayor of circumventing their authority.” It also mentioned that “an accusation has been levied that a council member has another developer lined up for the building in question, but there are no proposals anywhere.”
Over the next few days Caldwell-Wilson, Vaughn, Muschal, and previously unquoted council members McBride and Rodriguez were busy talking, speculating, and raising eyebrows.
Rodriquez saw the plan as a potential “sweet deal,” saying “sweet deals done in the past two or three administrations led to the economic woes that we have today.”
McBride was more colorful when she told the Trentonian, “I’m telling you the way I see this is from a whole different light than you. I’m an Afro-American. If I had pushed that damn deal, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I’d be talking to the boys with the initials ’cause they would have handcuffed my ass. George can tell you and Marge can tell you. Tony Mack tried to sell a garage. His ass went to jail for five years. If I push a deal without advertising, without putting a public bid and just pick somebody, one of my friends, my black ass would be in jail. And that’s just the way it is. Period. So when they come for me saying I’m being an obstructionist, no, I understand that I can’t do that sh-t and get away with it.”
Meanwhile councilman Blakeley, who favored having the plan appear on the council’s docket, released the following statement: “In what can only be considered among the largest economic development blunders in Trenton’s recent history, five of my colleagues on Trenton’s City Council recently refused to even consider a development proposal from Princetel, a dynamic technology manufacturer of fiber inter-connect products.”
After comparing the council’s act to the reaction to Amazon in New York City, he said, “Contrary to their claims about procedural or process difficulties, their decision to reject this proposal out of hand fundamentally stems from a misguided understanding and a fear of change and gentrification.”
Blakeley said that his African-American parents came from the South to Trenton for economic opportunity, but “that Trenton is gone. Trenton has an unemployment rate that is double the state average and a median salary that is a fraction of the county median. The city requires millions of dollars in state aid to maintain basic services, and our property tax rates are among the highest in New Jersey, a state with the highest property tax rates in the country. In our recent tax reevaluation, the value of city property dropped dramatically. Presently, Trenton is an island of poverty in a sea of affluence, in part due to poor economic development decisions like the one my colleagues on Council just made related to the Princetel proposal. This must change for Trenton to change. Instead of being welcoming of a much needed external investment, five of my council colleagues would not even permit the Princetel proposal to be placed on the council docket in favor of maintaining the status quo.”
Community members and voters share the same attitude and many have gone to the popular Fans of the Irresponsible Blogger Facebook page to voice opinions.
Participating were city supporters and business owners including I Am Trenton’s Kelly Ingram, Trenton Social owner TC Nelson, Trent House board member James Peeples, and community activist Darren Green. All had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the council to reconsider approving the plan during the following council meeting.
Gusciora and Zhang also added to the discussion and provided more details.
“There was never an issue with Princetel’s signing any pay-to-play document,” wrote Gusciora. “In fact Princetel’s CEO signed it after the fact. Took 30 seconds. It was asked for the night of the council meeting when they were expected to vote and used as an excuse to say something was afoul. Business friendly towns would have said, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Princetel, but you are missing this, here it is.’ Instead, as one council member said, ‘It’s not our job to tell you what you need.’ The second appraisal was also specious. Council had the project (with an independent appraisal) since October, 2018. They demanded a second (and in one member’s insistence, a third) appraisal on the night of the council meeting.
“They never expressed this need in the five months they had the project in their laps. It begs the question whether council members ever used Yellow Pages or were able to Google, ‘commercial real estate appraisals, Trenton.’ Council president also pulled the project three times from the docket and chased the CEO of Princetel out of chambers when he tried to do a presentation during public comment. This was purely out of spite and the need to stop any economic development project that came to them. Purely politics. Trenton be damned.
“It was never about a missing form or getting a second appraisal. In fact, truth be told, when the state handed over the site to the city, the agreement was that the state (would not) get any sale benefits from the buildings. So literally, this was over nothing. Finally you cry ‘It’s all about bringing in the ratables.’ The site pays zero property taxes since the city now owns the vacant property.
“While it was always anticipated that council would have negotiated some PILOT (Payment in lieu of Taxes) with Princetel (and I’m sure you would have visited this issue with them beforehand), this project would have been a jumpstart to get the seven empty structures on Roebling Block II back on the tax rolls. It would have also increased the values on your nearby properties.
“We’ll try harder next time. But Council should be a willing partner and able to roll out the red carpet for genuine economic development proposals in the future. Keep in mind that NJ Grow tax credits (and a very big incentive to come to Trenton) expire June 30. Again Council had the project since October, 2018, and caused the need to go elsewhere.”
On Facebook Zhang wrote, “I am indeed extremely disappointed. However, I am not bitter. The outpouring of support from all corners of the city and beyond has been overwhelming. Rehabilitation of any of the large Roebling buildings is a monumental task. We estimated two years to restore building 62 in Block II. Unfortunately, we have lost a full year in the process.
“There is simply not enough of a time margin for us to embark on it this round. We have decided to expand near us in Hamilton for the time being. But I have not given up on Trenton. There will be a comeback. In the meanwhile, I will continue my involvement in the city as a volunteer. I will do all I can to be a uniter, not a divider. The city will be a much better place if a newcomer such as Princetel is considered a potential contributor rather than a challenge or a competitor.”
Zhang also appeared to talk about his business and the failed proposal in a video created at his Hamilton headquarters by community members-turned-citizen journalists. Led by James Peeples and including questions from Kelly Ingram and Darren Green, the 25-minute segment, available on Facebook, includes Zhang’s comments on a variety of topics:
Trenton City Council: There was “no reason to be so hostile. The first time we (Zhang and members of the planning team) were there we were treated like criminals.”
Trenton Mayor’s Office: The staff is “young and naive.”
The Roebling site building: “The worst on the block.”
An alleged council member’s comment that Princetel hired mainly Asians: “That’s not true. Look around.”
And the future of Princetel and Trenton: “We haven’t given up. We’re a small company.”
Several days after the council made its decision, a handful of official-looking signs created in the style of an historic marker appeared at the site of the failed project. Inscribed in gold letters was the statement, “This Dilapidated Building is Dedicated to Trenton City Council for Exceptional Inaction and Ineptitude in Promoting Development. 2019.” The “marker” bore a mock City of Trenton seal that featured a horse head with sunglasses and looking like it was smoking a joint. The crest symbols included a beer bottle, microphone, and aerosol paint can. They were signed “local artists.”
According to the Trentonian, councilwoman Vaughn called acting police director Chris Doyle to demand the removal of the signs because they were on city-owned property and amounted to vandalism. The police department dispatched an officer to confiscate evidence and begin an investigation.
Meanwhile other signs appeared. A white generic warning poster at the same Roebling site advised, “Warning. Do Not Place Satirical Signs at this Location. It Might Make People Think.” And a flier with McBride’s face on an authoritarian communist revolutionary figure appeared near the Greenwood Circle, close to the train station. Over the image was the slogan “We are the Law.” An exposed document in the figure’s hand says “No redevelopment until I say so.” The remaining hand lifts the City of Trenton symbol high over her head.
The use of the word “law” echoed a statement McBride made to the Trentonian about the council’s redevelopment authority to stop any discussion of any project: “We are the law.”
Meanwhile, as council members continue to comb their imaginations for wrongdoings and the police hunt the city for artists putting up satirical signs, there is some hope for the future.
As Gusciora says, “I hope we all learn from this experience. I will make sure that council has all their concerns addressed. It has to be a two-way street . . . I hope going forward we can work in concert.”
He isn’t alone. After all, April Fool’s Day is over.