Profile: She Guides Investments in Communities Throughout New Jersey

Joe Tyrrell | April 8, 2015 | Profiles
Leslie Anderson, the first African-American woman to head a financing agency, makes a difference -- offstage and on

Leslie Anderson, executive director of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority.
Name: Leslie Anderson

Hometown: Plainfield

Position: Anderson has spent more than a decade as executive director of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority, the first African-American woman to lead a financing authority in the state. The agency finances and supports “urban-focused, neighborhood-based and investment-driven” plans and projects.

On the job: Established under the New Jersey Redevelopment Act of 1996, the authority holds an independent place in connection with the state Department of Community Affairs, whose commissioner chairs it. The NJRA takes neighborhood empowerment as its cause and economic revitalization of distressed urban areas as its goal.

The authority supports projects and programs like the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, in 69 communities around the state, from Weehawken to Salem City. Over the years, it has used roughly $335 million from state investment, site acquisition, environmental equity, and bonds funds to leverage more than $3 billion in outside investment.

Seeing a turnaround: Like other entities in New Jersey, the redevelopment authority has suffered lingering effects from the economic downturn. In 2013 for example, it reported committing $4.9 million in state funds, compared to $89.5 million in 2002. But it still was able to leverage a total of $188.8 million.

The needs have only gotten greater in the wake of the Great Recession, superstorm Sandy, and even simple population growth, Anderson said. But she sees signs of a comeback, thanks in part to some midsize lenders stepping up to take on larger roles in community development.

“We are seeing a turnaround,” she said, crediting banks like Investors of Short Hills and Valley National of Wayne with becoming more open to helping finance community projects. “More of the (medium-sized) regional banks are trying to create a footprint in New Jersey.”

Some New Jersey projects also are eligible for federal New Market Tax Credits through the NJRA and the Economic Development Authority. Look for some announcements in the near future, Anderson said.

Backstory: Anderson is a proud graduate of and advocate for Neighborhood House, a 77-year-old Plainfield community organization for preschool and school-age children, and their parents, that helped set her on her path to success.

“When I came to this career, it wasn’t a career,” Anderson said, but the logical outgrowth of what she experienced growing up in Plainfield.

She produced a picture of her and her best friend, Caroline Ghorm, playing with Tinker Toys as children at Neighborhood House. “We were three or four years old, so it was 1966 or ’67,” she said. And they had the toys because her mother Jean headed a parents’ support group that raised the money for them, and eventually joined the group’s board.

“She’s a community activist, she always was,” Leslie Anderson recalled. “My career path was down to the fact that I was with her.”

Fast Forward: “[Neighborhood House has] been around for a long time, 77 years in some capacity or other,” said Carol Presley, the current executive director. It started as an outreach program of the Moorland YMCA before eventually focusing on early-childhood education plus ongoing programs for older kids.

In all, “we have over 300 children from two months to 12 years old,” Presley said, although some come for afterschool activities rather than the educational program provided under contract with the school district.

“It’s a safe place for children to come,” Presley said, and provides “a continuum of care” in a hard-pressed small city. But almost as many children are on a waiting list, because the facilities are filled to capacity, she said.

“There’s always been a demand,” never more so than in an era when many public resources are drying up, “challenging you to do more with less,” said Union County Freeholder Linda Carter, a Plainfield resident who attended afterschool programs at Neighborhood House. A key factor in its longevity has been a staff who view caring as more than a buzzword, she said. “The teachers are active in the community, invested in their students,” who often return to volunteer, she said.

*Showtime:” The enduring legacy of Neighborhood House helps explain why Anderson recently joined other high-powered New Jersey women at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick to perform on behalf of the school and community center.

The crowd got to see “Still I Rise,” a series of dramatic readings performed by Anderson; Carter; former South Orange Mayor Joyce Wilson Harley; retired freeholder and judge Tahesha Way; Tai Cooper, chief policy advisor to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka; Jeannine Larue, a senior vice president of the Kaufman Zita lobbying group in Trenton; and Marilyn “Penny” Joseph, a vice president at Panasonic.

There was also a ringer. Wincey Terry Bryant, currently artist-in-residence at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, provided a powerful rendition of the title song.

Anderson said the participants threw themselves into the project under the guidance of director Tabitha Holbert, an actress currently appearing in “Blue Bloods” on CBS.

Serious Goals: The event, produced by frequent TV analyst Tara Dowdell, served as a high-profile way to jumpstart a fund-raising campaign for Neighborhood House. There are plans for a $1 million upgrade of the facilities, including the addition of a technology center. That is vitally needed in a community where many adults have little or no Internet access or skills, Presley said.

Takeaway: “We can spend a lot of time talking about what is wrong, or we can get involved,” Anderson said. Neighborhood House and similar efforts around New Jersey are “part of our legacy,” a way to ensure the continued survival of communities and neighborhoods, she said.

Whether at the state level or locally, Anderson said she also wants it to be “part of my legacy, that I made a difference in the world.”

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