McCormac stresses local economy in annual address

Staff Writer

Mayor John McCormac focused heavily on economic development in his 2015 State of the Township address this week, touting recent developments that have allowed Woodbridge to fund $17 million in school improvements.

However, residents are about to see these efforts take on a new phase, the mayor said in his Feb. 4 address before the Woodbridge Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“What is interesting to note is that none of the economic development efforts that funded our schools are in areas of high visibility. In fact, if I asked all of you to locate them on a map, 95 percent of you would have no idea where they were because you have not seen them,” McCormac said of the new projects — from three Prologis warehouses in Port Reading to the nearly $1 billion power plant being built in Keasbey.

“That is all about to change in 2015 because every major economic development project that we will undertake this year is well-known and visible, and residents will really see a positive change in the entire look of Woodbridge Township.”

An important initiative this year will be the redevelopment of the long-discussed General Dynamics site on Avenel Street near the Avenel train station. Township officials have been working with members of the Halpern family, which recently took ownership of the 25-acre site, to pave the way for an arts-based transit village.

“Demolition of the largest and ugliest structure in Woodbridge is about to get underway, and residential property values near that site will go up when the last brick of that abandoned facility comes down,” McCormac said of the former plant, which closed in 2000.

Plans for the site include 500 apartment units that will be constructed in phases alongside arts-themed retail space and an arts center. The mayor said NJ Transit will increase stops at the Avenel station, and he expects ancillary development to take place along Avenel Street and Rahway Avenue.

The departure of Hess Corp. will also bring visible changes on Main Street and Route 9.

“Here, the township has a unique opportunity to redefine downtown Woodbridge with the right mix of retail space, restaurants, office space and high-end housing,” he said.

The 10-story Hess office building is for sale, and McCormac said dozens of development groups have expressed interest. He noted that Buckeye Pipeline, which purchased the Hess refinery last year, has dismantled that operation to expand its terminal and tank storage capabilities.

“The iconic red neon Hess refinery sign has faded from the horizon, and the famous green neon Hess sign will soon come down from their corporate office building,” he said. “But their legacy will live on in Woodbridge Township forever as their properties are turned into uses that will make township residents proud.”

McCormac also expressed optimism about the site of the recently closed Woodbridge Developmental Center on Rahway Avenue.

“Because of our large and growing senior citizen population, we envision some sort of health- or medical-related use there,” he said, adding that an assisted-living facility, nursing home, acute-care facility or medical complex would make sense.

“We do not yet know exactly what we want there, but we have opened up a dialogue with four hospitals that surround Woodbridge to see what the market is for such health care operations.”

McCormac said there are several housing and recreation projects in the works for seniors. Reinhard Manor will soon start taking applications for 62 new senior units outside Merrill Park. The Ingerman Group — builder of Reinhard Manor and Maple Tree Manor — has applied for funds for a senior housing project on the site of the Hopelawn VFW, which the township is seeking to acquire.

He said officials are also exploring opportunities for senior housing at the 15-acre “prison warden” property on Rahway Avenue and the 2-acre site that was home to the Port Reading Knights of Columbus.

“Woodbridge is a town that not only takes care of its children and families, but a town that recognizes the contributions of our senior citizens, who in many cases can no longer remain in a single-family home though they want to stay near their families in Woodbridge,” McCormac said.

Also during his speech, the mayor noted efforts to make the township more businessfriendly and to revitalize the Woodbridge Redevelopment Agency. He said this has led to fewer vacant buildings and the addition of retail businesses and warehouses such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, FedEx, Amazon, Prologis and Arizona Iced Tea.

“By offering tax incentives, usually a 10 to 20 [percent] discount on property tax bills, we ensured that these companies would invest in Woodbridge — bringing several thousand jobs to our citizens with the added benefit of a cleanup of some highly contaminated brownfield sites in our township,” McCormac said.

“The township has dedicated 25 percent of the revenue from the seven development projects — approximately $2 million per year — to our school system to enable them to catch up on their infrastructure needs, which typically become the first thing cut in tough economic times.”

In recent years, the township has funded school projects including athletic fields, playgrounds and auditorium facilities.

“No town and school district in the state have more shared services,” McCormac said. “… No town and district get along better. And, no town and district save more money for their taxpayers than right here in Woodbridge.”

McCormac said this partnership would continue as officials seek to offer a full-day kindergarten program.

“The township has been working with the district for over a year to offer a Kindergarten Extended Day (KED) program at our Highland Grove facility in Fords for three grammar schools,” he said. “We are exploring the possibility of offering our first-class KED program at the former [Our Lady of] Mount Carmel School site in Woodbridge Proper this September for four more schools.”

The St. Cecelia School, a former Catholic school in Iselin that is temporarily being used by the Edison school district, could also be used for the KED program in 2016 or 2017, he said.

“Soon, all these locations could be utilized for regular kindergarten classes, even if it is not required by the state,” McCormac said.

During the annual address, which was McCormac’s ninth, he thanked numerous township administrators and employees, the Police Department and Township Council.

“I am proud to report that the state of Woodbridge Township is the strongest ever — perhaps the strongest in the state — and getting stronger,” he said. “We care about every resident, and we offer programs and services to all ages, all cultures, all religions and for all of our residents’ interests.”