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The Economic Opportunity Act: What's In It for South Jersey?

Original legislation established important incentives; new bill would bolster some of these -- especially for a few cities in the south


When state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) introduces a bill early in the next legislative session to tweak his Economic Opportunity Act -- which overhauled the state’s corporate incentive programs -- north Jersey developers and politicians will be watching carefully. What they'll want to know is whether the new measure adds any concessions to those they begrudgingly made to South Jersey when they negotiated the original act.

Though Lesniak’s new bill doesn’t touch the exclusive business attraction and retention packages allotted to South Jersey last year, he does hope to push through a few revisions. These are chiefly intended to further assist depressed residential real estate markets in Camden, Trenton, and elsewhere.

As he shepherds the bill through Trenton, Lesniak will be watching for pushback from North Jersey. The negotiations are likely to be a balancing act that provides for residential rehabilitation in blighted urban areas across the state, while respecting existing commercial and industrial tax credits and bonuses that give South Jersey a competitive edge in the fierce battle to win new and relocating businesses that could opt for other parts of the state.

As legislators pushed through the original Economic Opportunity Act, they spent a year or more strong-arming north Jersey politicians to accept special deals for South Jersey. The fight amounted to just one more between north and south -- but the victory could help level the proverbial playing field and transform the state’s eight southernmost counties.

Residential Construction and Affordable Housing

The new bill would amend a provision in the original act that requires contractors to include 20 percent affordable units in their projects in order to qualify for incentives, no matter where they build.

Because Lesniak believes the state’s poorest cities need more market-rate housing rather than affordable housing, he is seeking to allow some 60 urban municipalities to opt out. Instead, he would allot an overall $200 million in tax credits to convert 1960s-era affordable housing to townhouses and low-rises. He says Camden and Trenton are among many cities where low-income high-rises have become “dens of iniquity” ruled by gangs and drug warfare.

For New Jersey’s eight southern counties, this simply adds to current law, which gives residential contractors exclusive access to $250 million in bonuses -- including $175 million set aside specifically for Camden. And the designated “Garden State Growth Zones” of Camden, Trenton, Paterson, and Passaic will still be able to compete for another $250 million in bonuses currently allocated to residential developers in those cities.

Former Assemblyman Al Coutinho, who sponsored the original bill, told NJ Spotlight before the vote last spring that he and Gov. Chris Christie initially planned for Camden to be the only Garden State Growth Zone. They expanded the list because of Trenton’s deep need for redevelopment and the North Jersey contingent's desire for parity.

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