Lawmakers who represent Gloucester County in Trenton and Washington, D.C., have high expectations that building a long-awaited marine shipping terminal in Paulsboro will help invigorate the town of 6,000.
They expect the terminal’s activity, along with its anticipated 850 permanent jobs, to catalyze development in a working-class municipality that’s failed to keep up with the post-industrial 21st century progress enjoyed by neighboring communities.
Paulsboro’s incoming mayor is also planning for large-scale development on several additional parcels that he hopes will draw more residents and businesses to town. After all, he says, Paulsboro once served as a shopping destination for South Jersey and there’s no reason it shouldn’t play that role again.
In 2002, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Deputy Assembly Speaker John Burzichelli (D-West Deptford), got together to talk about how they could recycle a contaminated oil tank farm on Paulsboro’s Delaware Riverfront that owner British Petroleum (BP) had stopped using six years earlier.
After deciding to build the river’s first deep-water general cargo port in 50 years, the brand-new state senator and the brand-new assemblyman secured $170 million from the state to prep the site. They began to put the pieces together, with the South Jersey Port Corp. (SJTC) accepting management of the port and the Gloucester County Improvement Authority (GCIA) set to handle development. By 2007, BP had agreed to remediate the brownfield, provide early funding for feasibility studies and planning, and lease 190 acres of land to Paulsboro for $1.00 for a 99-year term.
In 2009, the two lawmakers attended the groundbreaking and hailed the jobs the port would bring when it opened for business within three years. BP kept its promise to complete the first phase of cleanup and site preparation by the end of 2012. Work was underway to ease traffic away from residential areas by redirecting an I-295 ramp and building a connector bridge that leds straight to the site.
But, “Something happened between then and now,” said Congressman Donald Norcross (D- Camden) yesterday on a tour of the project. “It was called the Great Recession.”
With money tight, tenant interest low, and the amount of cargo passing through SJPC’s other ports in Camden and Salem dwindling, the engines pretty much stopped between 2010 and 2014. At first, the GCIA waited to bid out construction until it could build to spec. but finally designed plans and went to bid once it became clear that the SJPC was having little luck attracting tenants. But that didn’t jumpstart progress. The GCIA reshuffled its design at least once and rejected several rounds of bids because of cost. It did, however, succeed in clearing, filling, and grading the site and making some infrastructure improvements.
Fortunes changed in 2014, when energy company Holtec International received the third-largest tax incentive in state history to build a corporate campus in Camden’s port district 11 miles from Paulsboro. Because the blueprints call for Holtec to infringe slightly on a piece of property leased to local shipping powerhouse Holt Logistics, the SJPC agreed to a game-changing deal with Holt: Holt would give up its claim to the Camden property in exchange for the right to operate the Port of Paulsboro.
Gov. Chris Christie traveled to Paulsboro last July to celebrate the news and announce that the marine terminal would be ready by 2016. Three months later, Holt secured a steel company as its first tenant. Yesterday, the two lawmakers who conceived the project joined Norcross to view the progress and watch as a local railroad crew prepared to lay three miles of tracks into the site.
“Seeing people driving construction vehicles around the property, moving equipment, that’s really exciting. But it’ll be really exciting when we start to see ships pulling into port,” said Sweeney.
“The demand for this site is very high,” added Burzichelli, who served as mayor of Paulsboro for 16 years.
The incoming mayor of Paulsboro, Gary Stevenson, hopes the supply of jobs and the demand for housing and services will prove just as high once the terminal is built. He and state officials plan to encourage Paulsboro residents to get jobs by helping them obtain federal security cards that will allow them to work at a port site, and they intend to foster a partnership between Holt and the county college and schools to train students and adults with needed skills.
“It’s satisfying to create opportunity for thousands of people to have good, permanent jobs that should pay them in the $60,000 to 70,000 range,” Sweeney said.
After jobs comes housing. Paulsboro has excellent housing stock, says Stevenson, but approximately 600 homes sit vacant, most of them in foreclosure. He notes that the port project is already benefiting the borough’s neighborhoods because some of the construction companies have bought homes to temporarily house their workers. More long term, though, he hopes to work with federal, state, and county sources to identify incentives for rehabbing these empty homes for purchase.
“We want to change our residents from renters to homeowners,” he said. “This should mark the transformation of this blue-collar town.”
Stevenson laments the lack of a hotel in the borough. There’s only one sit-down restaurant, and the last two grocery stores closed down more than 20 years ago. But in another sign of progress, a private developer has reportedly secured funding to redevelop the Paulsboro Plaza, where the closure of the ACME left the shopping center nearly empty.
After 10 years of delays, the former ACME will become a Save-a-Lot grocery store, and if Stevenson has his way, subsequent phases will bring townhomes and new restaurants to the plaza.
“We have lots of elderly people in Paulsboro who don’t have cars. Now they’ll be able to walk to get their groceries,” he said. The short string of successes is giving him the confidence to revisit another development opportunity that the recession stole: a property near 295 that was supposed to house a hotel, a Cracker Barrel restaurant, and a fast-food joint. The land was prepped, the access roads were built, then … nothing.
“It went down with the crash,” he said.
Now he says he’s hearing rumors that hotels are expressing interest in Paulsboro and that one is even considering a corporate center to host port-related meetings. That would be too big for a final parcel, just south of the port, that Stevenson is eying for development. But a riverside restaurant and a marina would fit just right, he says.
As for whether he expects opposition from environmentalists if he puts private buildings on this forested waterfront land that could be used instead for active or passive recreation, he responds that he wishes a park could have been worked into the marine terminal property itself.
But barring that option, he said, “Yes, there will be some hardships. But everyone will have to sacrifice to bring Paulsboro back.”