Kala Kachmar recently wrote an introspective article on the exodus of both retirees and millennials from New Jersey to other, less expensive states (in the case of the former) or more interesting locales (in the case of the latter), wondering aloud what the state can do to stem this loss. It’s something I’ve thought about frequently, and I’ve developed a few thoughts on the subject.
First things first: New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the nation and are often cited as a reason people are leaving the state. Our taxes are high for several reasons, a large part of which is to pay for our overly built-out, sprawling infrastructure (our water lines, our sewer lines, the roads to connect all of our towns). Given the traditional structure for each town to face these costs alone, a movement has sprung up to consolidate towns in order to save money in this area. Courage to Connect was integral to the decision several years ago by Princeton borough and Princeton Township to merge. Since that merger, the town has saved on municipal costs, according to a recent address by mayor Liz Lempert. At the legislative level, South Jersey Democrat and Senate President Steve Sweeney has been “the state’s foremost evangelist for service sharing”, the goal of which is to save money and lower property taxes.
Another important issue the state must confront is that a very large number of people entering the workforce after college don’t want to work in the soul-deadening office parks that characterized the state’s employment scene in the 20th century. WHYY’s Newsworks site has been talking about this, and towns like Holmdel have been trying to figure out how to give their sprawling office parks new life.
A related issue that goes hand in hand with where millennials work is where they live. NJTV News recently had an interview with Dean of Rutgers Bloustein School of Public Policy James Hughes who says “New Jersey needs to reinvent the suburbs to provide the equivalent of urban areas in the suburbs.” What this will mean in practice is refocusing on a unique asset the state all but ignored as it built up suburbia: its older towns with downtown commercial strips. People are increasingly drawn, even in South Jersey, to towns with old bones, due to their walkability and downtowns dense with shopping and restaurants. They truly offer a chance to capture some of the renewed interest in urbanized spaces at a time when it’s a motivating factor for young people leaving the state.
And for those people who do chose to stay and grow in New Jersey, it’s important to foster walking and biking as much as possible. The state right now almost exclusively caters to car traffic at a time when millennials are choosing a car-lite or car-free lifestyle and the elderly are finding themselves unable to continue driving. Much more needs to be done to foster the walkability and bikeability of New Jersey’s towns; we have a lot to offer that you won’t see as you speed by at 55 miles per hour on our 4-lane superhighways.
Complementing an increased effort to get people out of their cars is proper funding to maintain and expand public transportation, which is seeing record growth as people reject traffic jam-filled commutes in favor of taking the train to their jobs. PATCO, PATH, and NJ Transit are good systems in desperate need of care, but the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund jeopardizes their future usefulness. If people are going to work in Philadelphia or New York and live in New Jersey, they must be able to rely on public transportation to get them to their jobs.
And if New Jersey residents aren’t going to work in cities in another state, then we need to make New Jersey attractive for the kinds of industries experiencing growth at this point, that being things like the service economy the majority of whose employees, again, want to be in interesting urban settings and not in office parks in remote locations. The state could learn from any number of its peers in the region about how to attract and retain 21st century jobs.
Hopefully somebody in the state legislature takes these considerations seriously, because if they don’t, New Jersey is going to continue to lose good jobs to other states, cementing itself as a niche bedroom community and not much else.