Lawrence editor Bill Sanservino sat down with township municipal manager Kevin Nerwinski on Jan. 17 to talk about the state of the township as it enters a new decade.
Nerwinski answered questions about what residents can expect to see happening during 2020 in a number of issues, including the budget, township initiatives and development in town. Below is an edited version of that interview.
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Community News: Can you give us an update about what’s happening at the Lawrence Shopping Center?
Kevin Nerwinski: Well, the revitalization of the shopping center has been a very big issue among the residents of Lawrence Township. Many who grew up here remember the center’s heyday where you basically got everything and anything you needed at the center.
With J.J. Operating Inc., the center is finally owned, after years and years of neglect, by an entity that is committed to its revitalization. It is a company with more than 50 years of experience acquiring failing retail centers, bringing them back and, most importantly, keeping them.
This is a very good situation for our town. We all now know how inconvenient it is to not have a food store located at the easily accessible shopping center. Presently, Lidl and L.A. Fitness are full throttle in establishing their businesses at the center.
Their professionals have submitted plans to the township, and they have been approved. Very shortly, the residents will finally see progress. Lidl, L.A.Fitness, AutoZone and a soon to be announced big-name business at the center signal a very good start to its revitalization.
CN: There’s some people who have said on social media that they have doubts LA Fitness and Lidl are really coming. Can you explain why these things sometimes take longer than people would like?
KN: I try to engage our residents on Facebook, because a lot of the times I think people think that this is the only Lidl store that’s going up in the country, or in the world. This is an international food store. LA Fitness as well. We’re not on our time frame or the residents’ time frame.
Obviously the residents want a food store in there as soon as possible, but that doesn’t translate into anything that the municipal government can do to make it happen. Lidl and LA Fitness have their business plan. They’re working at their own pace, and they’re just taking a little bit longer than I guess people want.
I don’t know where all the questions are coming from in terms of it not really happening. I guess it’s just because it is taking a while, and people need to see to believe. From my perspective, Lidl professionals have been in here (the municipal building) multiple times. LA Fitness appeared before the planning board that I sat on when we approved their plan. So it’s just that it’s them working through the process at their own pace.
But we’re getting close to both. I think Lidl is going to start their inside work within the next couple of weeks. Also, the shopping center’s exterior renovations had halted at that location (Lidl), because they didn’t know what was going to be there. Now that they know what’s going to be there, the facade is going to start to happen sooner rather than later. I think that’s going to give people a lot of confidence.
CN: You mentioned that there is a potential big name business coming? Can you give us a hint?
KN: The scuttlebutt out there—and it didn’t start from me—is that Starbucks is going to come and take over the bank building, which is a perfect location. What’s good about the shopping center is that there’s a lot of parking. It’s not going to disrupt anyone’s quality of life. So this one, if it does happen, I think will be just perfect.
CN: Along with LA Fitness and Lidl, it’s the type of business that will draw people into the center. That’s a good thing.
KN: When LA Fitness went before the planning board, I think they said that there are going to be about 1,300 vehicles daily rotating in and out over the course of the day. Maybe even more. So that’s great. People will go there, then go food shopping, and then maybe they’ll have Starbucks.
Eventually all those little spaces that are currently unoccupied in the center, I think will start to fill up. Small businesses really need to have a comfort level that they’re going to get enough walk by traffic, and I think that will ultimately happen.
We are so fortunate that this particular company took over the Lawrence Shopping Center. Over the years it’s been managed by companies that wound up in foreclosure or that just kept it going, whatever it is. There was no proactive effort to make it better.
These guys never sell their properties. They’re a company that acquires retail spaces, makes them better, makes them profitable and keeps them. That’s a great partner to have in the community, for sure.
CN: Let’s take a look at the other side of the highway. What is the status of the Colonial Lake property?
KN: We are finally nearing completing the transaction for acquiring the land abutting the lake from Sheft Associates Inc. The subdivision of the Sheft Property has been approved, and we are now waiting for NJDOT approval.
Once received, we will be in a position to close on the property. At that point, that’s when the fun begins with the planning of its improvements, so it becomes an even more appealing destination for our residents to enjoy.
CN: What kind of process are you looking at for the property improvements?
KN: What we did by acquiring this particular piece of land was to basically stop it from being developed by a motel or a hotel chain, and that’s great. The residents really spoke out. I was very much a proponent of acquiring this piece of property to preserve the lake.
It’s a lot of money, and to me—and our elected officials are on board with this—it would not be a prudent investment if we were to just buy the land and leave it exactly as it is. It’s an opportunity, once we acquire this property, to tap into other grant monies to improve it.
We’re looking at things like putting a trail all the way around the lake and putting a pedestrian walk over the lake. That way people can walk the trail without having to go on Route 1 to get over to the other side.
Maybe other things that will generally make it more of a passive park with picnic tables. A place to go and enjoy nature. Once we close title, which I hope is going to happen within the next two months, we’ll start the planning process and probably have community conversations about what we intend to do.
There’s not going to be any disruption of land. There’s not going to be any building there. It’s going to be very much preserving its natural character and hopefully improving it so more people use it.
CN: You announced last year that the township had gotten a grant to clean up the old Pit Stop site in Eldridge Park. What’s the status there, and what is going to happen this year?
KN: After more than a two-year process, the township is now waiting for the funds ($239,524) from the Hazardous Site Remediation Fund of the NJDEP to hit our account so we can contract with the remediation company that will be authorized to tear down the structure on the site and further study the contamination of the soil underneath it.
As you may know, the township does not own this site. It is owned by a non-operating LLC with a deceased principal member, and is subject to more than $1 million dollars in liens and judgments, which attached from the prior remediation work done on the site by the NJDEP.
Our plan, if all goes well, is to get the site remediated, discharge the liens against the property, and acquire ownership of the property. The grant monies we obtained are conditioned on the fact that once it is remediated, it will be used as a passive park area.
We expect to receive the funds from the state any day now. Once I receive a firm date on the demolition of the structure, I will be sure to let the community know. Improving this site has been a priority of the mayor and council, and having grown up in this community it certainly has become a passion project for me.
CN: Do you have you know of anything else that might be coming down the pike for the Eldridge Park area?
KN: I have my eye on Eldridge Park itself. I would like to figure out ways to improve it. It’s a little gem back there. We recently connected it to power. Previously the neighbors were having movies in the park at night, but they had to use a long extension cord from someone’s house for power.
We got PSE&G to install a panel in there. I think we’re going to be looking for opportunities to make the park better for people. What that is, I don’t really know at this point in time, but I want to generally to improve it. Maybe put bathrooms in there?
CN: I know it’s still kind of early in the year. What can you tell us about the 2020 budget so far?
KN: The budget process actually started this past October when department heads were asked to prepare and submit their budgets to our chief financial officer. This next council meeting, the mayor and council will be presented with a recommended budget for their review.
Over the next couple of months, the department heads will appear before council at our public meetings and discuss their budget requests and answer any questions the elected officials may have. Our budget process is very transparent. If any resident has an interest in the municipal operations and its finances, these next several months would be optimal for them to attend our meetings.
CN: Are there any items on either the revenue side or the expense side that you think will have an impact on the budget?
KN: This is the third budget that Peter Kiriakatis, who is the CFO, and I are preparing. With this year’s budget, we are very much satisfied with the level of employees that we have—the personnel.
We think we can deliver the services that residents expect with the amount of employees that we have now, and we’re not looking to add anybody else at this point in time. We’ve got no significant cost factors that will show a significant raise in taxes.
CN: So no major increases in insurance, or pensions or anything like that?
KN: Every year before we even take a look at the budget, we know there’s about $800,000 in costs that we can’t control. Salary increases that are negotiated in contracts. Costs of garbage collection and and all that stuff. That’s without blinking an eye.
So then we try to figure out how to reduce those costs, or other things we might want to do. This is going to be a quiet year. I think we’re just like, “Let’s take a break, take a breath. We’ve done some things over the last couple of years. Let’s see where we are now before we start planning anything dramatic in the future.”
CN: Over the past few months a number of solar panels have sprung up at the municipal site. Can you talk about the project?
KN: The solar project is 95% complete. We are waiting for final hook-ups. Our elected officials are very much proponents of all things sustainable, and have directed me to look out for and seize upon sustainable opportunities for our community.
It also very symbolically shows the town’s commitment to sustainability. In addition to this program, we have received grant funding for the installation of two electric car charging stations at the municipal building—one for public use and one for municipal operations, and for the purchase of an electric vehicle. We do plan to purchase one electric car—maybe two—as a pilot program to see how they perform. The electric vehicle we are purchasing will be used by our tax assessor’s office.
CN: How did the solar project come about and how was it funded?
KN: It didn’t cost us any money at all. It was funded by the solar panel people, for lack of a better word, and it went up, I think, within 45 days.
We’re always trying to look for ways to be fiscally responsible. The solar panels at our municipal building and those installed on the roof of our public will take care of 85% of our energy costs for the municipal building and the police building. That building, with all the police department’s electronics and communications equipment, uses a huge amount of energy.
It’s pretty significant. It’s going to be a savings of probably $40,000—conservative estimate—a year.
CN: Sounds like a pretty good deal.
KN: Yeah, it’s significantly less than what we’re paying now. We were initially concerned about the project changing the character of our campus here, but I think, as in anything, we’ll get used to it.
CN: A portion of the town is serviced by Trenton Water Works, which has had a number of water quality issues in recent years. How do you feel about how they’ve responded?
KN: TWW continues to be a very serious concern of all of us who rely upon its water for our daily lives. From my position as the municipal manager, having access to timely and substantive first hand information, I am very confident that the utility is improving significantly.
It is hiring the right professionals to operate the facility, and its five-year plan involves a substantial commitment to capital improvement, which includes replacing water lines in our community as well as major facility upgrades.
CN: There’s been some talk about having an advisory body made up of members from towns serviced by TWW. Do you think that’s a good idea?
KN: I can tell you that myself and the mayor have a direct line to the mayor of Trenton and a direct line to the facilities chief operator.
I know the outside water users—which is Hamilton, Hopewell, Ewing and us—are not being denied information. This is a utility that is wholly owned by the city of Trenton. Maybe this is a controversial opinion, but I don’t think that a board such as that would really have any real meaningful impact other than what we’re doing already.
The state of New Jersey is already monitoring them. There’s a court order in place that they have to follow. Would it make residents feel better if this board was in place? I guess maybe it would, but for me, from the inside seeing what I see, TWW is getting better.
I think 90% of the vacancies that they were required to fill in that facility have been filled. They have good leadership in place. There’s a strong commitment for capital improvements both at the facility and in water line replacement. Everything is going the right way. I’m still up in the air in terms of whether or not a board is the way to go.
CN: I guess if it the need becomes apparent some day in the future, it could be addressed at that time.
KN: It’s an interesting legal question, because this is a utility that’s owned by the city of Trenton. So in the end, it’s their council members that get to decide on funding issues. We could have some kind of board that comes up with all these great ideas about what we want, but it doesn’t matter, because they have the ultimate decision.
I think we are being heard in terms of the issues that we want to pursue, and we know the state is involved and always responsive to our concerns.
The legislature just passed a law requiring better contact, which has been a problem in the past. There were boil water advisories that did not get to our residents quickly enough. And it’s not because of anything that the township is doing. We are reliant on TWW for the information. Now they’re being required to report it within an hour, and I think that’s going to help people.
I think they’re on the right track and hopefully in a year or two, we won’t even think about water any more.
CN: Are there any significant road or capital improvements happening in the township this year?
KN: We are waiting to see what TWW’s plans are for the water line replacement work in town before we plan any major road work. We do not want to get into a situation where we replace roads and then shortly thereafter they are torn up due to the water line replacement work.
The most significant project we will be working on in 2020 is the Brunswick Pike streetscape that involves the roadway (Business Route 1) between the Brunswick Circle and the roundabout at Whitehead Road.
It will be the culmination of years of work and planning. The road is currently owned by the state, but in a few months it will be turned over to the township to own and maintain. We will be having some public meetings to discuss the proposed streetscape designs in the very near future. It is our goal to make this area more pedestrian friendly and appealing. To slow the traffic down in the area and to generally improve this section of town.
CN: I was looking on the township’s website and noticed that there’s a home improvement where the township will fund projects in certain instances. Can you explain how it works?
KN: This has been a long-standing program in our township. It provides low- and moderate-income families the opportunity to have their home undergo significant improvements. It really is a great program that has a lot of participation.
It’s funded under our affordable housing program. Some of the projects that I’ve seen include roofs, major systems, kitchen remodels, porch remodels. Things that improve the structure itself to make it more habitable.
CN: So developers who build in the township pay into an affordable housing trust fund?
KN: Exactly, and there’s a portion of the trust fund that is designated for rehab, as required by the state. For example, there’s going to be a development that’s going up off of Princeton Pike, in back the Lenox building. There’s going to be like 300 or so (residential) units that are going to go up there. A portion— 20% of them—are going to be affordable housing. So that would be another influx of money to the affordable housing trust fund where we’re able to do more things.
CN: Both you and the township are pretty good at communicating with residents online, through the township website, social media and your blog. You recently started a new initiative—Senior Connect—to help inform residents who aren’t online. Can you explain how it works?
KN: We had our first “soft” opening to this program this past week. Over the course of my 2.5 years as the municipal manager, it became clear to me that those residents who are not using the internet are missing out on a lot of great information regarding all things Lawrence Township.
Elderly residents are the ones most likely to call my office with a question, or concern and an opinion, but they don’t have the information that is readily available online. Because of this, it became important to our elected officials and myself to do more to reach the “greatest generation.”
What we came up with is basically putting in print what is being posted on the internet. Not all of the postings, but those of high interest and importance, and maybe humor (everyone needs to laugh).
So if there is anyone not using the internet who has interest to become informed, they have the ability to do so by coming to the senior center or the municipal building to review our bi-monthly “packets.”
We will also have a link to the “packets” on our website with the hope that those residents who have a senior family, friend or neighbor that they know would be interested in the information, can print it out and deliver it to them.
A community effort is required to keep all informed. Sitting in our home and waiting for information to come through the door is not a plan that will be very effective in this day and age, but we can certainly do what we can to provide some assistance.
CN: Do residents need an appointment to come in and look at the packets?
KN: No, they’re just going to be available. It’s almost like a library situation. Also, we really want to use this to help promote the senior center. A lot of seniors don’t go there for any reason. There will be five or six packets available for people to go and sit and review.
We don’t want to get into a situation where we are obligated to mail stuff out to a whole bunch of people who never look at it.
We want the people who are truly interested to come out. People have to be a little proactive to try and get the information, and I think this is like a way of meeting someone who’s not on the web more than halfway, and saying here’s what’s going on with us in print.
We have had a couple of residents reach out to me who want to help. So we’re going to probably have a group of volunteers who will go out and deliver every few weeks to senior citizens who are infirm or unable to get out for whatever reason.
I’ve had so many conversations with senior citizens who care about the community and they’re upset about something. Then I tell them what’s on the website or what was posted and then they’re like, “Oh.” And they’re completely satisfied. So the information is out there, we’ve just got to get it to them.
I think it’s just another way to connect with people and provide information, because information is everything. You know what I mean? You can have an opinion, but if you have an opinion based upon no information, then it’s not really an opinion at all.