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Urban renewal more than bricks, mortar

Koeppe: Corporate leadership key to redevelopment

Al Koeppe, chairman of the Economic Development Authority board and president and CEO of Newark Alliance, says he's invested so much of his career in urban development because “New Jersey doesn't come back unless its cities come back.”

John Schreiber has only known Al Koeppe for seven months, but it hasn’t taken him long to learn what many New Jersey business and political leaders have known for decades.

John Schreiber has only known Al Koeppe for seven months, but it hasn’t taken him long to learn what many New Jersey business and political leaders have known for decades.

“I think of him as a wise man,” said Schreiber, who took over in July as the head of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark. “He’s a guy who has run corporations, he’s a guy who’s been involved in government, and I see him as a go-to guy for the best advice and best practices.”

Koeppe retired in 2005 as president and chief operating officer of Public Service Electric & Gas, but his voice still rings loud and clear among New Jersey’s decision makers. And his influence in shaping the state’s economic future remains strong, as chair of the Economic Development Authority’s board and president and CEO of the nonprofit Newark Alliance.

The EDA post has allowed Koeppe to help the state revitalize its cities — a mission that’s been central to his business career — using tools like the four-year-old Urban Transit Hub tax credit program. His longtime belief that “New Jersey doesn’t come back unless its cities come back” is one reason he has invested so much of his professional life in helping rebuild Newark, where he first arrived in 1964 as an undergraduate student at Rutgers University.

“The future of New Jersey is dependent upon how healthy our cities are,” he said. “I think there were governors, policymakers and just people that had a lot of wisdom that recognized that. But we didn’t see really aggressive legislative attention until I would say the early 21st century.”

Koeppe’s corporate career kept him in the thick of the city for decades, as he rose to CEO of Bell Atlantic New Jersey in 1993, then worked for PSE&G from 1995 to 2005. Once he retired, he took the helm of the Newark Alliance, the nonprofit he helped found to improve the city’s public schools and economic conditions.

As a seasoned observer and a participant in Newark’s economic history, Koeppe said he saw the city be “frozen in time … for almost a generation” after the 1960s, when civil unrest sparked the flight of business and the middle class. In the ensuing decades, the Brick City was slow to regain its footing, due in part to what Koeppe called “insular” leadership in City Hall, and isolation from business and higher education institutions.

But that’s now changed, he said, calling the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center two “drawing cards” that were built through a mix of political will and support from business leaders like Raymond G. Chambers.

And while 2011 was “a significant year for brick-and-mortar investment,” Koeppe acknowledged the city still faces concerns about public safety, education and poverty.

“If you look hard at Newark, even though we clearly have some interest from the business community … brick and mortar and steel girders are not what make a city or a community,” he said.

Now in his second term as chair of the EDA’s board, the straight-talking Koeppe has brought “a lot of credibility and a high degree of respect” to the panel, said Caren Franzini, the agency’s CEO. But he has also directly influenced his fellow board members, forcing a higher level of “diligence and commitment” from them as they vet applications for the authority’s slew of assistance and incentive programs.

Koeppe’s fingerprints are on many of the safeguards in the EDA’s incentive programs, especially as the scope of its programs widen, she said. Among them is the “CEO certification” requirement in the agency’s $1.5 billion Urban Transit Hub tax credit program, under which chief executives must sign their company’s application and certify they would move the firm out of state but for the credits.

“He knows, as a former CEO, what that means,” Franzini said. “That level of due diligence and thoughtfulness has been critical for us at this stage in EDA’s cycle.”

The financial implications of the Urban Transit Hub program are not lost on Koeppe, who feels its guidelines and vetting process have matured to be “about as good as you can get,” he said. But the true impact of the program remains to be seen, because “even though it’s been around for four years, in practical terms, it’s only been functioning for about two.”

Koeppe said interest in Urban Transit Hub has spiked since 2010, drawing applications from business giants like Panasonic and Wakefern. But the value of the program will be clear only when there are “shovels in the ground, structures going up and human beings on the property.”

Developing the Urban Transit Hub program is “clearly something that (Koeppe) has taken ownership of,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of Newark-based PSE&G. “And I think a lot of that is driven by his desire to see the cities do well.”

“Al’s been a champion of the urban centers for years,” he said. “He uses Newark as a poster for his efforts, but I think he’ll jump into an issue in Paterson, Jersey City or Camden just as easily.”

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Joshua Burd

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