Despite facing challenges in netting a large corporation to locate in a long dormant business park, the town of Phillipsburg is on the cusp of significant economic growth with the announcement of a $1 million infusion of funds for downtown businesses.
According to Mayor Harry Wyant, the town is making strides to attract businesses, provide incentives and encourage business owners to stay in the community that's just across the river from Easton. He gave a state of the town address Wednesday at Flynn's on the Hill in a program hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Phillipsburg Rotary Club.
With the economic growth occurring across the river in the downtowns of Easton, Allentown and Bethlehem, Wyant said the town has been working with NORWESCAP, a nonprofit in Phillipsburg, to bring the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit program to fruition – an initiative that would invest $1 million in downtown business.
Large corporations can take a 100 percent tax credit to be used for anything that will engender community development in an area, said John Korp, associate director of NORWESCAP. For Phillipsburg, area banks and a health insurer are stepping up to make the donations.
The businesses get a tax credit for funds provided to nonprofits carrying out comprehensive revitalization plans. According to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs website, nonprofits must use at least 60 percent of the tax credit funds for housing and economic development; the remaining funds may be used for supportive services and other activities that promote neighborhood revitalization.
The state department encouraged the organization to partner with the town and develop a plan, Korp said. In 2009-2010, the state department approved the plan, which includes studying the oldest blend of existing residential/business, as well as open space, Korp said.
Phillipsburg is one of 60 communities eligible to receive this money and is one of 10 approved in the state for housing development, Korp said.
The planning approval process takes several years, he noted.
"We have $1 million to spend," Korp said. "We are not patient people, it's something we would like to see happen."
15 BUSINESSES TARGETED
The organization targeted 15 existing new and established businesses for enhancements, façade upgrades and streetscape improvements. The funds also will be used to rehabilitate four units of single family homes. The businesses are in the area of Sitgreaves and Stockton streets, near the intersection with South Main Street.
"We want to talk to them and make these businesses better," Korp said.
The organization partnered with several banks which allocated these funds, including PNC Bank, JP Morgan Chase, TD Bank and Lakeland Bank, as well as Horizon Health Care (Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey), Korp said.
"It's been many years in the making," Wyant said. Hopefully, the town can get more funding in the future, he said.
KEY PROPERTY STILL VACANT
One of the difficulties the town faces is finding a company to move into the vacant Phillipsburg Commerce Park at the former Ingersoll-Rand property.
"We've had a lot of interest, we've had a lot of false starts," Wyant said. "What we are doing now is we are working with the manager of the core plant [the manager of the buildings on the site] to try to market the entire site as one."
The lien holders on that property are willing to take a significant hit, he said, and town leaders would like to attract an international or national company to the site.
TAX INCENTIVE IN JEOPARDY
But with Gov. Chris Christie proposing to eliminate the sales tax incentive in the Urban Enterprise Zone program, the town faces another challenge, Wyant said.
The UEZ allows businesses to buy any materials they need and pay no sales tax. Wyant said a business owner could use this program for anything, including bricks and mortar materials, computers, paper, etc. But with the governor's proposed cut to the program, UEZ participants would have to pay 3.5 percent for everything they purchase.
Wyant called the move a step in the wrong direction.
"Our lawmakers should be providing more tax incentives for businesses to stay in New Jersey," Wyant said. "We can't compete. What are we doing to promote business in New Jersey? I don't know."
He said it was frustrating to have a large parcel of land and not be able to fill it.
MAIN STREET DESIGNATION
Other developments are in the works to boost the business profile of the downtown.
Phillipsburg is working with the state of New Jersey to obtain a Main Street designation which would provide greater access to state funding that could improve and enhance its downtown. The initiative has backing of Phillipsburg and Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
"We want to bring more ambiance to the downtown," Wyant said.
A proposal by Peron Development of Bethlehem to build 446 residential units off Howard Street has gotten some opposition but it's a development the town sorely needs, according to Wyant.
Bringing 446 units to the town could add another 900 people downtown to patronize local businesses, he added.
"That's what we need, more people downtown, so I think that's a good project," Wyant said.
Upgrades also are coming to St. Luke's Warren Campus in Phillipsburg, said Scott Wolfe, president of St. Luke's Warren Campus.
Over the next three years, the hospital network will spend more than $35 million to refurbish its facility, add two new generators and upgrade utilities for many years to come.
The improvements include building a new intensive care unit, expanding its footprint in the Hillcrest shopping plaza and building a new infusion center, Wolfe said.
St. Luke's also is looking farther out along Interstate 78 to potentially expand its footprint, he added.
"You'll see more and more specialists coming here," Wolfe said. "We are actually having very good success getting cardiologists and other specialists. You'll all benefit from that on either side of the river."
By 2017, the largest medical employer and school district will have refurbished campuses, Wolfe said.
Phillipsburg Area School District is starting construction on its new high school.
NORWESCAP also is working with Easton and Phillipsburg to create a joint winter market in January 2015 that would promote businesses on either side of the river. The nonprofit and the towns are looking for merchants to get involved.