With an image that reflects more blight than economic might, Phillipsburg officials are hoping to transform their town's appearance by increasing efforts to reshape the downtown.
They are looking to create a business district that shows active investment, economic growth and recreation opportunities for residents and tourists.
It’s a strategy the New Jersey town has been working on for more than a decade, but officials say the time is at hand to capitalize on opportunities and make a concerted effort to ensure it happens.
By focusing on redeveloping its riverfront corridor, Phillipsburg officials plan to create an attractive entry point that would lure visitors and bring greater visibility to that section of town. This prominent area is the first part of Phillipsburg that visitors see coming over from the free bridge that connects Easton to New Jersey.
Officials say a business revival is long overdue for a town on the edge of the Lehigh Valley poised for growth thanks to a recent tax incentive designation for the town, new businesses moving in, the beginning of long-awaited construction on a massive industrial park and the economic rise of Easton, Phillipsburg’s neighbor to the west.
“These kinds of opportunities you only see once in a lifetime,” said Stephen Ellis, mayor of Phillipsburg. “We are standing at a turning point. There’s never been this much redevelopment probably since the turn of the century.”
ACROSS THE RIVER
The past few years, downtown Easton has drawn more businesses with the opening of new apartments, restaurants and many commercial tenants, along with serving as a regular hot spot for hosting large events. Developers refurbished older buildings into upscale apartments and they continue to bring new investment into the city.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Phillipsburg, new businesses are being built along Route 22 and construction has begun on a massive industrial park, also off Route 22. These developments could bring added momentum for more investment and business growth.
Furthermore, the town’s Urban Enterprise Zone designation includes a number of financial and tax incentives, which could also attract developers.
“There’s huge incentives for people to get involved in it,” said Patrick Dragotta, urban enterprise zone coordinator in Phillipsburg. “I think we are in a great position to take advantage of it.”
The UEZ allows developers to avoid paying capital gains taxes on properties they own, up to 10 years.
As coordinator of the UEZ, Dragotta said he makes developers aware of state programs and puts them in contact with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to explore all available opportunities and state incentives.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Gov. Phil Murphy recently allocated a UEZ for Phillipsburg, Ellis said, noting that it would help provide economic growth.
NEW USE FOR INGERSOLL SITE
Site work is underway on the long-awaited redevelopment of the former Ingersoll Rand tract, which occupies both Phillipsburg and Lopatcong Township.
Bridge Development Partners is starting the work on the first of seven buildings at Bridge Point 78, which is a 380-acre industrial park off Route 22. That project is in the UEZ.
In his mayor’s report in July, Ellis said town revenues would increase once the new warehouse facilities are built this fall at the Ingersoll tract.
INFLUX OF BUSINESSES
Dragotta, a lifelong Phillipsburg resident, agreed the time is right for the town’s resurgence, particularly since several other developments in the town are occurring now, all of which could attract further investment.
Other developments imminent or underway include the construction of a CVS Pharmacy at the former Exxon gas station at the corner of Route 22 and Roseberry Street, Dragotta said.
Also, construction started on Shammy Shine Car Wash at the former 7-Eleven site on Roseberry Street, and construction of Bourbon Street Liquors next to KFC on Route 22 should soon begin.
“There’s businesses coming in,” Dragotta said. “We can expect some announcements in the next six to eight weeks.”
With tax incentives and construction projects, officials believe the time is right to redevelop the downtown.
“We’ve never been in this position now with all these businesses actively trying to come here,” said Lauren Spence, manager of Easton and Phillipsburg Area Initiatives for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve been working really closely with the redevelopment plan with the mayor.”
HAVEN FOR SECOND LOCATIONS
Another goal of the mayor and Phillipsburg Council would be to encourage businesses to open a second location in Phillipsburg, Spence said.
Pearson’s Crawdaddy’s, a seafood restaurant with a location in Newton, N.J., recently opened behind Jimmy’s Hot Dogs on Union Square.
Ellis sees this as ground zero for the new crop of businesses that could fill the downtown and draw more people.
This year, Phillipsburg officials introduced a revised Riverfront Redevelopment Plan that expands upon the version approved in 2014 and the original plan from 2005.
One of the key elements in the updated plan is the potential for tourist-based economic growth through increased leisure opportunities and other pedestrian-friendly amenities.
“This new redevelopment plan has a lot more tourist-type of activities,” Dragotta said.
Since Phillipsburg already has a boat launch and tubing area, the town can capitalize on its activity-based tourist environment, according to Dragotta. This plan is close to what could become reality, he added.
“This would include the potential for a hotel. What we’ve done is about 90 percent of what it would look like,” he said of the plan for the waterfront.
IMPORTANCE OF UNION SQUARE
Physical changes to the downtown most likely would not occur until next year, and it depends on how aggressive town council is in moving forward, Dragotta said.
Another factor that could set the tone for investment in Phillipsburg’s downtown is the sale of an iconic and prominent property near Union Square.
The property – 61, 75 and 83 S. Main St. – is set to be auctioned off this month in conjunction with Ten-X, an online real estate marketplace, according to Joseph Paranee, a Bethlehem broker representing the property.
The property, partially vacant, consists of three buildings of multiple sizes that include a mix of finished and unfinished space for office and residential uses.