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New growth in Trenton is sign of the times

Mayor, business heads feel city built on manufacturing showing signs of comeback

Co-owners Jim Nelson, left, and Rick Tarantino, of City Beef in Trenton, talk about the company's planned expansion.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Particularly striking at night, when its emblazoned “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” inscription reflects back off of the Delaware River in red neon light, the Lower Trenton Toll-Supported Bridge is widely considered to be the city’s most iconic landmark.

Famously visible to passers-by via train or car, it’s a nod to Trenton’s rich industrial past, back when the city was a leader in manufacturing and at the forefront of getting things done.

There’s clearly a cynical remark to be made here about the current state of affairs under the golden dome on State Street, but we’ll let you come up with that on your own.

And while nostalgia is fine and all, Trenton city economic development specialist Eric Maywar would argue that the capital city’s best days as a manufacturing hub might not be behind it.

Of the more than 60 manufacturers based in the city, Maywar, who also owns Classics, a popular downtown bookstore, rattled off at least seven companies that have grown or made a significant investment in the city over the last two years, or at least plan to do so in the near future.

Trenton was not immune, by any stretch of the imagination, to the nationwide downturn in manufacturing over the last few decades, and evident signs of that are still scattered throughout the city.

Still, unlike in some other areas across the state, Trenton never really saw its manufacturing base completely swept away, either.

“There has always been that thriving core of manufacturing that was never gone,” Maywar said.

Maywar says that part of the manufacturing rebound in the city is related to things “that we can’t take credit for,” referencing the natural uptick in the economy since the most recent recession.

“Now that the economy is back on course, demand is up and they’re able to grow again,” Maywar said.

And the city is doing whatever it can to help sustain that growth, Mayor Eric Jackson said.

“Although the manufacturing sector has contracted somewhat in America, manufacturing companies in Trenton continue to thrive, innovate and drive employment,” Jackson said. “They are incontrovertible contributors to our local economy, and we’re working to keep it that way, so business retention and attraction is a critical imperative at city hall.”

But that doesn’t mean that this handful of Trenton manufacturers has been able to skirt the tides of innovation and modernism.

Over at City Beef on North Willow Street, for instance, owners Rick Tarantino and Jim Nelson have embraced them. On its surface, the building that houses their 61-year-old meat and food wholesale and distribution business is a relic of a bygone era, when meatpackers were popular fixtures on city streets.

Walk inside, however, and you’ll find that it’s not just meat racks anymore.

After purchasing the business in 2014, Tarantino and Nelson have added a full commercial kitchen equipped with special machinery to support their growing array of food products, which includes everything from sautéed broccoli rabe to biltong, a seasoned dried meat akin to jerky that’s popular in South Africa.

Trenton-based manufacturers seeing growth:

  • Case Pork Roll: Producer of New Jersey’s iconic pork roll, Case plans to hire 20 to 40 new workers as it ups production to meet increasing demand.
  • City Beef: A meat and food product wholesaler and distributor, City Beef wants to increase its space by 3,800 square feet to accommodate new production lines and growing demand.
  • Hibbert Company: The printing and marketing campaign management firm received approval in June for a 10-year, $33.6 million Grow New Jersey award from the Economic Development Authority to stay in Trenton and renovate its over 100-year-old location.
  • Hutchinson Industries: The military-grade wheel manufacturer is looking to add 20 new employees this year.
  • Switlik: The marine and aviation survival gear manufacturer is currently planning to expand and add new employees, though no figures have yet been set.
  • Tektite Industries: The producer and distributor of military-grade LED lights and knives added new employees this year and plans on hiring more soon.

“This is the source of our growth,” Nelson says, standing in the kitchen.

The move to include a new product line has City Beef currently planning to nearly double in size, by roughly 3,800 square feet. New employees already have been added to the kitchen space and Tarantino and Nelson say more hires are on the way as expansion nears.

But as the company eyes growth, its focus is still primarily local.

Tarantino and Nelson take pride in the fact that area institutions such as Rossi’s and DeLorenzo’s use meat from City Beef to make their widely hailed burgers and sausage pizzas, respectively.

And when the 1911 Smokehouse Bar-B-Que opened up to much fanfare downtown last fall, the owner came to City Beef looking to develop a signature barbecue sauce.

“City Beef lives in this sort of niche world, where we custom develop, we push and pack,” Tarantino said.

Shifting to the other end of the manufacturing spectrum, Tektite Industries, a producer and distributor of military-grade LED lights and knives over on North Clinton Street, has added new employees this year and plans on hiring more soon.

Company President Scott Mele says that, with up to 30 percent of his business each year coming from exports, location isn’t really of the utmost concern to Tektite, which moved to its current built-to-suit location in Trenton from Hamilton in 2000.

Mele says that, while he’s done his due diligence in scouting other potential sites over the years, the potential costs associated with leaving the area have never added up.

But, aside from the favorable strategic location that Trenton offers a company that relies on shipping, Mele says the city also brings with it a sense of legitimacy. And whether that’s real or just perceived, Mele is pleased enough with the notion to grow his business in the capital city.

“I’m happy being here,” Mele said. “I’m happy being able to put on our website ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes’ and put a little clip of the bridge picture at night.

“The fact that we’re in the state capital, in Trenton, it’s a known manufacturing hub. It just makes people a little more comfortable for us, no matter who it is. Whether its government customers or commercial customers.”

Interestingly enough, with the Route 1 corridor just a breath away, Mele’s chief complaint over the years has been rooted in workforce development.

“The issue that we have sometimes is finding skilled labor,” he said. “If there’s nobody here in the city, trying to find people to travel to the city to do it. So, it’s been a challenge over the years, but, generally, we’ve succeeded.”

And that’s where the city is stepping in these days, under the Jackson administration, hosting meetings with its manufacturers and aiming to provide a platform for companies to voice its concerns.

Workforce development has been the group’s primary focus as of late, and the city has worked to pair businesses with colleges and universities in the region to collaboratively address the issue.

“It’s nice to have a core group,” Maywar said of the city’s manufacturers, particularly with strength in numbers to those in the food industry. “They’re really strong industry partners. It’s nice to start there.”

As Trenton looks to bring more manufacturing jobs to town and work to keep those already there, Maywar says that incentives will surely be part of the equation.

In June, the state Economic Development Authority approved a 10-year, $33.6 million Grow New Jersey award for the Hibbert Company, a Trenton-based printing and marketing campaign management firm, to reinvest in the city by renovating its over 100-year-old facility on Pennington Avenue, as opposed to heading to Bucks County.

Projects in the city are eligible for some of New Jersey’s most attractive incentive offerings under the Economic Opportunity Act, as Trenton is listed as one of the state’s Garden State Growth Zones. The city does also feature an Urban Enterprise Zone designation; however, it’s unclear what the future of that program will be as it lacks continuing support from Gov. Chris Christie.

Jackson says that, in addition to aiding its manufacturing base, the city is currently placing a priority on growing market-rate housing and commercial retail space.

“We believe that, if we build the kind of quality housing product that consumers seek in other competitive urban markets, they will come to Trenton because housing is less expensive than in neighboring markets,” Jackson said. “Also, because of our history, robust arts scene, urban grit, easy access to major highways and proximity to New York and Philadelphia.”

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

Andrew George

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