Trenton Downtown Association, with new director, Tom Gilmour

Trenton Symposium, Nov 27, 2017

Freddie’s Tavern, Railroad Ave., Ewing

Guest:  Tom Gilmour, Director, Trenton Downtown Association

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:45, after the usual fine lunch.  We had 22 people in attendance, including new member Stephen Fitzpatrick.  Stephen noted that he was glad to be among us, had lived 37 years in New Jersey, and loved the Scottish connection to be Trent and Mercer.  He works at UIH Family Partners, an organization that helps fathers rebuilt their lives so that they can be positive presences in their children’s lives and communities.

We also welcomed Liz Ewell, Director of the Salvation Army.  She has lived 40 years in Trenton, after a stint in the service.  She is particularly interested in Trenton’s historical resources.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1415 in the bank.  Joe reminded everyone that annual dues are payable now.  The report was accepted by voice vote.  One member suggested that the Symposium consider donating some of its funds to the Rescue Mission, or Orchid House, or to a Trenton historical nonprofit.  That will need to be discussed at a later meeting, but there was a general murmur of approval for the idea.

Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce speaker Tom Gilmour.  He applauded the Symposium’s focus on Trenton’s needs and the people who are meeting them, and indicated that he was well acquainted, even in a short time, with some of our speakers, including Elijah Dixon at Orchid House.

Gilmour came to Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) from Asbury Park.  He had a great run there, helping to put that community back on its feet culturally and economically.  He sees parallels, the most important being that he hit Asbury Park at what was “its time,” and he thinks that Trenton’s time is also now.  TDA wants to help re-position Trenton for sizable growth and is happy that there is momentum to build on.  The Roebling Lofts development, now 60% leased, is encouraging people to move back to Trenton, using the new transportation resource of the RiverLine and expects to continue developing additional Roebling properties once the Lofts are fully leased this spring.

TDA’s mission as a special services district is business recruitment and retention.  One key piece of that puzzle in settling people in Trenton to patronize local businesses, which is why he is so pleased with the Roebling Lofts project.  Safety is a big part of attracting people back, and Tom is confident that, with basic urban smarts, people can be safe in this city.  Eight new businesses have opened up downtown this year, including Maestro technologies in the old Wells Fargo building.  They currently have 140 people on staff and expect to hire another 70 in 2018.  They only use 30% of the building, so there is room for more comparable companies to come in.

He’s excited about the new Starbucks on Warren Str, not just because of its retail operation but because it is a regional training center for the company.  It also offers community meeting space, so it looks to be a multi-dimensional positive for downtown.  All Starbucks regional staff will begin by experiencing Trenton, and then fan out to outlets around the region.   They are also willing to create internships in entrepreneurship for local residents, continuing to build the small business base for the city.

He sees other powerful resources already in place.

Art is first (he built a lot of the Asbury Park work on its great music traditions).  Artworks, Art All Night, Art All Day all bring visitors to Trenton and support artists and studios in city neighborhoods.  AAD has grown from 22 to 38 sites this year.

                  Trenton is so cheap to live in that hundreds of artists can settle here.  TDA has the bank building and is looking to convert it to studio space and a Trenton-centric art gallery.

TDA also does façade improvements, and with a grant from TDA, Orchid House hired signage from a local artist, a three-level win.  He also sees impact from the Levitt-Amp concerts in Mill Hill Park, which mobilize Trentonians to vote for their city in the competition each winter, and then brings people in to experience the city again during the summer.  (ED update:  Trenton won the concert series again for 2018, so that will continue to build)

Historic heritage resources are another aspect of Trenton’s strength. 

Gilmour is impressed by how hard Boston works its resources … why can’t Trenton do as much with its own?  He thinks that Trenton actually has better Revolutionary History than Boston and cited Patriots Week and its many facets as the sound foundation.  He wants to create a marketing plan to follow up the PW events and strengthen year-round promotion of Trenton’s history.  He sees possibilities of partnership with, for instance, the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Parking revenue is an untapped resource for cultural development in Trenton.  In Asbury Park, he was able to secure a bond issue to install a new system that boosted revenue by $4.9 million.  Not through ticketing, but just by metering parking effectively.

Gilmour sees the safety issue as a media problem, and again was familiar with the same problem in Asbury Park.  He recounted how his mother called him every day after he began working there, to make sure that he was safe.  Media have a taste for the negative.  His plan is just to keep making positive things happen, knowing the media will eventually pay attention.

He has also won a special projects grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to create an unarmed foot patrol force for the downtown area.  The goal is to beef up official presence, and keep steady eyes on what needs maintenance, investment or law enforcement involvement.

Gilmour is also excited about the group Greater Trenton, which is offering tech help to developers and to City Hall to attract large businesses to the city.  George Sowa (a recent Symposium speaker), has made a bid to Amazon noting 5 areas within the city that the city owns and could be turned over for their HQ.  Trenton has powerful location and transportation advantages, and the Greater Trenton proposal showcases what could be done here.  The proposal can also be shared with other large concerns that might be attracted here.

Gilmour has made efforts to increase TDA’s political clout at the state level.  By conferring with both gubernatorial candidates, TDA won the ear of Gov-elect Phil Murphy.  Gilmour’s plan is to engage the state in reanimating the War Memorial.  It used to have almost constant bookings, which supported the hotel and downtown eateries.  That stopped under Christie, but can be re-started.  Gilmour is also imagining a production company with its base at the War Memorial, so that film work could be brought to and coordinated within Trenton.

Gilmour is very optimistic.  He likes Trenton people and finds it easy to get connected here.  That open, welcoming attitude, he says, is the best thing a city can have going for it in undertaking revitalization.

Several folks had questions and suggestions, including Lolly O’Brien who asked about encouraging our restaurant scene through somethink like Top Chef or Restaurant Week.  Gilmour mentioned Tastes of Trenton, which has been successful in the Burg and is now reaching downtown. 

There was also a question about the future of the hotel.  Gilmour indicated that the situation was complicated by family ownership and an estate wrangle within the family.  He thinks that city and state incentives can make a resale attractive, and that revitalizing the calendar at the War Memorial will make the hotel a paying proposition once again.  Jane affirmed that, back in the day, the War Memorial attracted big name acts that brought thousands of people downtown.  She likened it to the Count Basie theatre in Red Bank, NJ.

George brought up the problem of voter apathy in Trenton, noting only 25% turnout in recent election.  Gilmour responded that they are trying to make voter registration one of the things offered at the Levitt-Amp concerts in the summer.

Steve also mentioned Detroits’ Slow Roll, a bicycle tour effort that brought people back downtown and slowly gained momentum.

The meeting adjourned at 1:30, with the announcement that we will meet again on Monday, January 22.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary