On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River with the Continental Army, in a moment that is immortalized in the paintings of Emanuel Leutze. The crossing immediately precipitated Washington’s surprise attack on the Hessian forces in the Battle of Trenton. Two centuries later, it is no longer necessary to row through a river full of ice alongside so many infantry regiments, but the sense of rich history, both national and local, remains.
Today, anyone can start up their car and drive across the Lower-Trenton Bridge, which spans the Delaware River and makes the crossing that took Washington, and his army two days look impressively trivial. If the bridge itself is not enough a testament to technological progress, there’s always the sign that burns in neon letters a reminder of how far the world has come, and how much history there is to recall: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”
The Northeast has no shortage of dazzling cities. Just north of Trenton, there’s the sparkling hub of New York, a little farther north, and there’s Boston, or follow the Delaware southward, and there’s Philadelphia, in all of its historic splendor. Though Trenton may not possess all the glamor and flair of its neighbors, as the slogan emblazoned across the bridge declares, Trenton has a deep history of leading the nation in making and has a bright future in innovation and technology as well.
The history of Trenton is the history of the nation itself. Like many American cities that can tell tales of a time before 1776, Trenton played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War, and the traces of that history live vibrantly in the fabric of the city in the present day. In addition to the Battle of Trenton, the victory that gave hope to the Revolutionary cause and the reason Washington crossed the Delaware at all, Trenton was one of the major candidates for the new nation’s capital. Though a more southern site would eventually be selected, Trenton continued to be a major player in the story of the United States.
The city even hosted George Washington as he traveled to his first inauguration, at the historic 1 West State Street, a building that still stands, alongside many other historic landmarks in the city.
In the 1800s, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the city blossomed as a commercial hub and manufacturing center. As canals and railroads connected the country, raw materials flowed into Trenton and finished products flowed out. Trenton produced some of the most important products in the country, including iron and steel, rubber, and pottery, in a boom that would define one of the most productive and critical eras in the city’s history.
Trenton produced not only an impressive volume of the most essential industrial goods, but some of the highest-quality products that were used to further technology and infrastructure across the country. Multiple manufacturing giants called the city home. Trenton Iron Co., for example, was known for producing iron that was used in the U.S. Capitol Dome and the Treasury Building. In addition to the ironworks, John Augustus Roebling chose Trenton as the site for the Roebling steel company, which crafted the wire rope used in suspension bridges across the country. The Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and even the Golden Gate Bridge were constructed with Trenton-made steel.
With such deep roots in manufacturing, it’s no surprise that when the Trenton Chamber of Commerce began a competition for a slogan for the city in 1910, entrants referenced Trenton’s history of creating products for the world. The slogan that now adorns the Lower Trenton Bridge, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” serves as a pithy reminder of the city’s history, but we live in the twenty-first century.
What about the present.
In addition to its history as an early American city and an industrial hub, Trenton has a bright future as a center of innovation, with a strong tech presence and a healthy partnership between commercial and government organizations that continue to vitalize the city’s innovation and growth. Although manufacturing is no longer the predominant industry today, both in the city and in the world at large, Trenton has carved out a place in the present, and its technology scene will only continue to grow as it receives support from local government, as well as funds and opportunities from across the globe.
Though manufacturing in Trenton suffered throughout both world wars, the spirit of industry never left the city. Many of the major players from the nineteenth century are no longer in Trenton, but a number of businesses continue to flourish, though the goods they produce consist of less steel and more modern products. For example, Tektite Industries Inc., a manufacturer of technologically advanced lighting products from flashlights to tactical lights and strobes, has its headquarters in Trenton.
Other major players are Hutchinson Industries, a producer of vehicle parts, including an important piece for military vehicles, and Ana Design Corp., a local candle company. Manufacturing may look different now, but it has never disappeared from Trenton.
To best understand the trajectory and potential of growing tech hubs, though, the simplest method might be to follow the logic of industry leaders. Of course, there are plenty of companies and startups congregating in Silicon Valley and plenty of demand for real estate in New York City, but where else? When Amazon was searching for a site for its HQ2, the list of core requirements was lengthy, spanning a wide variety of considerations that might serve as important indicators for how a city would fare as a new epicenter of technology. Cities in nearly every state submitted bids, Trenton being among them. The 112-page bid paints a clear picture of a city that is poised to thrive in an increasingly technological era.
In terms of Amazon’s criteria, Trenton clearly benefits from its proximity to major population centers, namely Philadelphia and New York City, which also confers proximity to several airports, including international airports. Additionally, the ability to build a closely connected campus, with many certified or shovel-ready development sites, makes the city an attractive prospect for tech companies, especially in conjunction with the many transit and transportation options, including bike lanes and pedestrian access.
Culturally, Trenton is also home to an active arts, entrepreneurship, and service community. From the Trenton Community A-Team, to Artworks Trenton, to a number of university accelerators and incubators, the intellectual and artistic scenes in Trenton continue to grow in both size and scope. Trenton would have been far more than an empty plot for Amazon to develop; it offers a history, culture, and verve of its own.
As an entrepreneurial city, Trenton is also full of opportunities and continues to grow with each passing year. In 2019, for example, Trenton won a grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority that partnered institutions of higher education to establish a research-driven incubator that would commercialize research and innovation, bringing new types of careers and new fields of research to the city. Trenton has also received several spotlights as an entrepreneurial ecosystem, as a city with strong economic potential and a long social and financial history. According to a study conducted by Verizon published in late 2018, Trenton was the 15th-most innovative metropolitan area, and that number is only increasing as funds, access, and opportunities proliferate in the city.
To best understand the trajectory and potential of growing tech hubs, though, the simplest method might be to follow the logic of industry leaders.
– Avery Nguyen, Maestro Technologies Inc.
Though Trenton was not ultimately chosen as the site for Amazon’s HQ2 — the winning proposal went to Crystal City, Virginia — the city is already beginning to live up to the potential it pitched in its bid to Amazon. From former factories to historic schools and warehouses, the city is full of sites that are prime candidates for renovation and rejuvenation.
In 2018, David Henderson, John Hatch, and Michael Goldstein successfully transformed one of the old Roebling factories into the Roebling Lofts, a 138-unit apartment building that represented a stride into the future. Dan Brenna’s Ajax Management has also successfully converted buildings that were no longer used into vibrant retail, restaurant, and residential spaces, from apartment buildings to airy, open retail space. Trenton is a city primed for development, and with plenty of support from the local government, that contemporary flair is slowly materializing. Trenton is rapidly developing an even more substantial commercial presence.
Marrying technological innovation with the revitalization of historic spaces, Maestro Technologies Inc. has also established its headquarters in Trenton, occupying the 1 West State Street building that once hosted George Washington himself. Maestro chose Trenton because a wide range of both qualitative and quantitative factors, many of which were also suggested in Trenton’s HQ2 bid, indicated that Trenton had immense potential as a technological hub and would provide a bright and vibrant home for Maestro to grow. The city is ready for technological development and innovation; public institutions are overwhelmingly supportive of the technological cause, and the city itself is full of intellectual life, so Trenton was a logical choice for Maestro’s new headquarters.
Maestro prides itself on providing transformative digital and data-driven technology solutions, and all about Trenton. At Maestro’s headquarters, when it is safe to do so, there is a regular schedule of educational training and seminars, networking events, and other events to foster a spirit of innovation, and collaborations with university partners, leaders in technology, and other local organizations, are commonplace.
Recently, Maestro has also been working more closely with the city to reinvigorate the city’s IT infrastructure, supporting technology footprint from the Water Department, Public Works, Tax, Housing, Fire Department to the Police Department further into the twenty-first century. In the past, Maestro has partnered with NJEDA to encourage development to New Jersey, creating jobs for Trenton in particular. But now working with the city directly, Maestro is renewing outdated systems, establishing new policies and procedures, and ensuring that the city has secure, functional, and effective technology infrastructure, so that it can do its best work in welcoming technological innovation and growth.
As a contractor, Maestro aims not to monopolize decisions, but work as a partner and an extension of City to ensure that city employees are in the loop and empowered to make choices and strategize about technology.
Empowered by the spirit of transparency and high-level service delivery methodologies, Maestro has documented the entire infrastructure of the City of Trenton, leaving thorough documentation and planning for later initiatives and future generations. Additionally, as part of the process of training and onboarding new IT resources, Maestro has shared a guidebook that sheds light on and gives structure to the different categories of infrastructure, allowing city resources to better understand and implement strong guiding principles in the city’s daily operations. Trenton IT facilities have been transformed into a high-tech Operations Center, with features like a status heatmap and a new ticketing system enabling resources to better track daily incidents and activities. Maestro is also constantly engaged in assessing vulnerabilities and regularly notifies stakeholders of actions and alerts.
Despite the pandemic, user experiences across the city have been enhanced, as Maestro IT resources work to attend to city needs, including in-person, physical support. A daily staff checkpoint, along with regular outreach to heads of each division, allows the Maestro team to ensure that all expectations are being met and that the city is providing the best possible tech experience, especially in a time where technological access is more crucial than ever.
Unilateral support across all levels and branches of government is often a rarity, but when it comes to modernizing Trenton, everyone is able reach a consensus about furthering the city’s future as a technological center. Through both public and private partnerships, the city has continually taken strides towards an innovative future. Alongside Maestro’s efforts to update and upgrade Trenton’s infrastructure, the city recently hired a new CTO who has built the foundations for a city that runs on tech.
Before Joseph Rivera took over as CTO, Trenton had no robust plan, strategy, or systematic oversight in the city, with regards to technology. Rivera began his role in early March 2020, and though there was no position untouched by the pandemic, he was an active advocate for the city and its future throughout a challenging first year. His accomplishments include a massive reduction in costs and waste, including recovering funds that were diverted in a cyberattack, improving services for constituents and making those services more accessible, implementing vitally important layers of crisis prevention, and of course, spearheading efforts to attract further businesses, jobs, and revenue to the city.
Along with his efforts to streamline the city technologically, Mr. Rivera has also been responsible for many business developments and attraction initiatives in the city. In addition to being a panelist and advising a digital government summit, in which large IT companies showcased their products to the city, Trenton successfully hosted its first virtual housing auction, a milestone which represents promising strides in fundraising ability and attractiveness to newcomers.
Not least, Trenton also became the second city in New Jersey to adopt and roll out 5G. In collaboration with the mayor’s office, and with approval from the City Council, 5G was adopted after a long process of discussions and review. 5G is the new global wireless standard, and its implementation represents technological strides which will have a ripple effect into economic growth and development into the future.
With Maestro on the scene beginning in September 2020, along with the City Council, administration, and Joseph Rivera, an impressive number of technological accomplishments have accelerated Trenton’s efforts to attract businesses to the Capital City. Trenton is now primed to develop into an enduring technological hub. Understanding and further nurturing the capital’s potential as a tech hub will be crucial to the city’s future growth.
From a city that made history, to an industrial city that produced steel used around the world, to a modern-day technological city, Trenton has rich roots and a bright future. Though the city’s image has continually evolved over time, one thing is certain: Today, Trenton has invested heavily into becoming that modern age City, and it is poised to be a major player in the technology scene for many years to come.
Avery Nguyen is senior research associate at Trenton-based Maestro Technologies Inc.