George Padgett was always there as mayor


By David Knights
   It is impossible to walk on nearly any street in Hopewell Borough and not see the impact that George Padgett made on this community in the time he lived here and served as mayor.
   Since learning of George’s death in Florida last week, the visible reminders have caused me to think of George and miss him terribly and yet at the same time they have served to boost sagging spirits. There will be many generations able to enjoy the many physical elements that came into being between George and Molly’s arrival in 1986 to the stately house on West Broad Street and today. What I hope many also will remember and that somehow get recorded are the intangible elements that George brought to the community through his tremendous involvement in public service.
   George was first elected to Borough Council in 1990 with Mark Samse and Mark Herr. Dennis Nemeth was the mayor at the time. George loved to tell the story of how he became mayor upon Dennis’ sudden resignation shortly into his first term. According to George, the members of Borough Council looked at each other and asked themselves who looked most like a mayor. Since George had white hair and a stately appearance, it was an easy choice. George combined an impressive legal and corporate background, a calm and steadfast approach to life, and a certain stubbornness. From the start in 1990 until several years ago when he and Molly moved to Florida, he directed the activities of Borough Council, the administration, the Planning Board and left a distinct and lasting impression on this community.
   There is Hopewell Park with the Gazebo and a complete network of bridges, trails, and paths. George held a press conference with Gov. Christie Whitman in the Gazebo on a beautiful summer day to announce a statewide open space initiative. George also showed up with coffee and doughnuts or water and snacks for any occasion in the park where work was being done by various groups of volunteers. He did not simply deliver the items and leave. He stayed and lent a hand and enjoyed the bonds that developed between members of the community.
   There is the Railroad Station and the Freight Shed. Once again, Gov. Whitman held a press conference with George to announce one of several renovation grants that George played a large role in securing. The governor awarded a grant to Kevin Kirby for his Eagle Scout project, which involved finishing the interior of the Freight Shed. George was comfortable and at ease with the governor, her staff, and Kevin. He was the same way with the numerous children and their parents who came to enjoy the Christmas festivities at the Railroad Station on a Saturday in December.
   Hopewell Borough became the first designated Village Center in the State of New Jersey during George’s tenure as mayor. This helped secure a $3.0 million grant/loan from the Green Acres program. George successfully master-minded the use of those funds not only to purchase the Ruhland tract outright but also to acquire a conservation easement on the Ruggieri farm.
   I have a fond memory of sitting with George, Joe Ruggieri, and Mark Solomon, Joe’s lawyer, at a diner on Route 31 on Oct. 5, 1998. Joe said he really needed to complete the transaction before the end of that calendar year. Mark and I felt that was nearly impossible given the number of subdivision, zoning, and financial issues that still were not resolved. Somehow George made it happen and not only before the end of the year but actually before Christmas. While the Ruhland tract is a far more visible element of the open space buffer that surrounds Hopewell Borough, the Ruggieri farm is important in as many ways.
   There were a lot of battles where the outcome could have been very detrimental for the borough, add this comma and George had the skill and tenacity to lead Planning Board members, staff and consultants to results that improved the quality of life. Some of these went on for years and involved seemingly endless rounds of public and private meetings. George was always there as Mayor.
   There was the Metromedia fiber-optic case and their construction of a utility building along the railroad tracks without a building permit (they had checked with Hopewell Township and thought that they did not need one). While some residents thought the company should be made to remove the structure entirely, George knew the expense to the borough of pursuing this alternative would be prohibitive. But he never let Metromedia or their lawyers know there were any options other than that. Therefore, at the end of the day, the borough spent a relatively small amount of money and got a number of improvements from the company.
   The farm silo that sits on Joe Ruggieri’s farm and is very visible in the winter months, but hard to find at any other time of year, could have been a 125-foot-high monopole on Somerset Street if it had not been for George’s leadership. One of the company’s consultants thought the borough might find the monopole more acceptable if they made it into a flagpole. It is hard to imagine how detrimental the pole would have been, with or without the flag on it.
   There is a lot more we all should be thankful for when it comes to George’s influence on the community. He wrote me a three-paragraph note in late November after we had spoken on the telephone. One of the paragraphs mentioned both St. Michael’s and the library. While he had moved away, his interest in this community had not faded in the least.
   I hope others will take a moment to consider the impact that George Padgett had on Hopewell Borough and, in fact, all of Hopewell Valley.