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Asbury Park's Road to Recovery by Terence J. Reidy, City Manager, Asbury Park

Every city has its own rhythm…its own history…its own journey to greatness. Most people are aware of Asbury Park’s glorious history and its inglorious decline (as described so well in Bruce Springsteen’s “City of Ruins”). This article begins the story of Asbury Park’s journey forward—one that celebrates what was best about our history and addresses what was not.

Asbury Park is one of the most diverse communities in the state. It has economic, cultural, lifestyle and racial diversity. Our people are our greatest asset.

What impressed me most when I was hired as City Manager in 2003 was the governing body’s commitment to every part of the city. Asbury Park had suffered from corrupt and/or inept political leadership and a lack of competent and honest professional management. At times our city was beset by a nest of crooks who sought to benefit from its dysfunction. But even at its worst, Asbury Park had many honest men and women who fought to intervene.
Painful History In the late 1960s and early 70s, Asbury Park lost retail shops to suburban shopping malls and our boardwalk amusement audience to the theme parks. On July 4, 1970, Springwood Avenue, a thriving retail and entertainment corridor, burned to the ground. One of our greatest assets met the same fate that had consumed dozens of other cities during that time of social unrest.

Later, the State of New Jersey closed many large mental hospitals. The move left thousands of former patients with no option other than to fill the declining hotels and rooming houses of Asbury Park. Add to these pressures a failed redevelopment attempt in the 1980s and you have the perfect backdrop for Robert De Niro’s 2002 film “City by the Sea.” (The building used for the police station in that film was actually the back of our sewer plant.)

This was the state of the city when the majority of the current City Council took office in July of 2001. However, Asbury Park was not without hope and some key assets. In addition to our oceanfront, the city had many multi-generational families and businesses who never gave up on its future.

Members of the gay community had started to restore homes and open businesses. Artists and musicians flocked to Asbury Park as an affordable and accepting venue for their work. Our city was full of people looking for a “second chance.” They recognized and elected a governing body and administration with a vision equal to the task of rebuilding the city.

A Promising Present So…where are we now? Please excuse me for bragging a bit:

  • In 2002 the total revenue from the beach utility was $73,000. By 2011 that revenue had grown to $890,000.
  • In 2007, the parking utility (formed in the 1950s) was non-existent. In 2011 it brought in $1.1 million.
  • 2011 marked the lowest rate of violent crime in the last 10 years. The city attracted $10 million in grants to offset police and fire department costs.
  • In the first new project in five years, 28 townhomes are under construction on the waterfront.
artist rendering of Springwood Center

Today Asbury Park is a lively, walkable and sustainable, year-round city. Its offerings include live theater; movie theaters; several art galleries (where “art is made, not just displayed”); two art organizations (SICA and Arts Cap); restaurants of every style, size and offering; and several popular music venues (including jazz to rock and roll in a bowling alley, the Stone Pony, Convention Hall and The Saint).

In 2010, the Smithsonian Institute chose Asbury Park as their first venue for their “Roots Tour.” The city hosts music festivals (“All Tomorrows Parties” and “Bamboozle” this month). Our mile-long beach and boardwalk has been described as “the most democratic place in America” (the first person to tell me who said that will receive a season beach pass). The city also boasts an array of architectural styles and some of the most beautiful homes in the state. Despite our challenges, Asbury Park still deserves its title “The Crown Jewel of the Jersey Shore.”

The downtown complements the boardwalk as one of the hottest entertainment, music, art and eating destinations in the region. Main Street is a vibrant melting pot sustained by thousands of Latino families and businesses.

While there is not enough space here to describe every detail of this change, I will outline some of the policy, action steps and the measures we use to track our progress. Asbury Park’s recovery began and continues through careful attention to the rhythm of our city—our roots. We are a city where people come to re-start their lives. There are no short cuts or “off the shelf” solutions.

The Engines of Change One of the keys to our success has been electing (and re-electing) honest and strong political leadership and competent and professional management. Continuity of leadership inspires confidence and brings stability. Stability brings investment.

Asbury Park has also benefited tremendously from our relationship with the State of New Jersey, from the Governor to every department that impacts the city.

We have made the Department of Community Affairs’ recommendations an integral part of our “Roadmap to Recovery.” The city is currently part of a state-initiated Community Development Initiative (CDI). Our mayor and an assistant county prosecutor are the co-chairs. After one year in the trenches, we are seeing results. There is finally one place where everyone interested in providing solutions can get involved. The state continues to be our strongest ally. Without Transitional Aid both the fiscal integrity and the safety of the city would be at risk.

We’ve sought every grant and economic development opportunity. UEZ funds were used to support small businesses; purchase beach cleaning equipment, new fire engines, and DPW equipment; and to fund a walking patrol in the downtown. Other major grants funds included: Community Development Block Grants, Environmental Infrastructure Trust funds ($15 million), Monmouth County Parks, Safer Grant(Fire Department) and COPS funding as well as dozens of other project specific funding sources.

We have also established a collaborative relationship with the county. The Monmouth County Sherriff’s Department saved Asbury Park over $200,000 this year by providing fire and police dispatch services. We are currently exploring opportunities to regionalize services.

The city’s leadership has also tapped every avenue to secure our community. Our Police Department provides an effective “street crimes” unit that deals with the more hardened aspects of urban crime. This unit took close to 100 guns off the streets before they could  be used in the commission of crimes. Meanwhile, our P.A.L. and school resource officers provide a needed balance; our community and youth need to see the police as their protectors and allies.

Residents and business owners are part of the solution and must be at the table for a genuine systemic recovery. As a result of their input, we have revamped our recreation and training programs. The number of recreation programs funded by the city or by volunteer groups has increased dramatically. Many of these programs now focus on job training and college entry as career paths.

Over the past nine years, the City has supported and initiated several job training and placement programs for city residents with developers and businesses. This is not a city jobs “give away” program. Instead, the program is now part of the Community Development Initiative referenced above and is establishing goals matching the growth in the city.

Changing the culture of City Hall has been a priority. Strong leadership and investing in good people will transform our city over time. In 2004, we brought engineering and planning/redevelopment in-house. This action saved the city millions of dollars in consulting fees and managed $40 million of infrastructure improvements while developing or managing seven redevelopment plans. Every department has been reorganized in the last nine years and is reviewed for efficiencies annually.

However, these redevelopment plans are action plans and they are not written in stone. They must be amended on a regular basis and remain relevant. We’ve worked hard to keep an open, respectful relationship with our development community. While Asbury Park has been in some form of litigation with our major developers on several occasions, litigation is not the end game. At this point, we have a relationship built on respect and a balance of power. During the worst economy since the depression, every part of Asbury Park has continued to grow. The Westside, downtown and the waterfront all have projects completing or starting this month.

City leaders have also worked hard to nurture relationships with non-profits. The city partnered with a local non-profit (Interfaith Neighbors) to build a three-story architecturally bold structure which includes retail on the first floor, a police sub-station, the city’s senior/community center on the second floor and eight affordable housing units on the third. This project is the model for collaboration. The city owned the land, Interfaith managed the project and handled the financing (the City owns the second floor). The project has set the standard for development throughout the city.

We are proud to share with you the success we have enjoyed on our journey to full recovery. If you have not visited us in the last five years, it’s time you did. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 6, June 2012

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