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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

LNJ Part IX: Mixing It Up – Keys to Community and Economic Development


November 2015 Seminar
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.

The final seminar of our Lead NJ program focused on community and economic development, often through the specific lens of what changes and efforts are underway in Jersey City. The variety of perspectives we encountered – including affordable housing, job training and growth, arts and culture, policy, and commerce, to name a few – underscored my biggest takeaway from the seminar: that the success of communities is largely dependent upon mixing up people, access, resources, and collaborative approaches to solving problems.

We were hosted by St. Peter’s University, where panelists addressed topics including creating and maintaining vibrant business communities, affordable housing, and neighborhood revitalization. Day two brought us a quintessential Lead NJ experience – a private bus tour of the state-of-the-art GCT Bayonne Port in Bayonne, led by John Atkins (Pres. & CEO) of Global Container Terminals – the entity that runs the port.

Deputy Mayor Marcos Vigil started our day by giving us some basics on the city itself: Currently, Jersey City is unique in its demographics – it is the “youngest” city in New Jersey with the greatest percentage of the population between the ages of 24-34, and has roughly equal representation of African-American, Hispanic/Latino/a, Asian and Caucasian populations. Jersey City is also unique in its efforts to work with companies like Airbnb (to leverage hospitality taxes by legalizing Airbnb’s operation in the city) and Citi Bike to capitalize on growing urban trends, which places it among only a few cities around the nation to do so.

How do some of those unique conditions play out in the community? Some may be able capitalize on the shift in branding – since 9/11, Jersey City is no longer a bedroom community for Manhattan, but is morphing into a place that has all the proximity and transit benefits of Manhattan, while being somewhat cheaper. In tandem with that shift has been Jersey City’s ability to attract corporate employers to set up shop on the west side of the Hudson. But how can the assets available to large employers, developers and those who can afford rising rental rates benefit the greater community? How can the community grow without displacing its current citizenry, without succumbing to gentrification, which can push out low and moderate income residents alike?

Mixing it up, in terms of job training and growth, affordable housing, and policy, seems to be a good place to start.


Our first day started with a panel of impressive women who are leading the charge to grow a dynamic business community in Jersey City – one that includes and creates space for corporations, small business owners, entrepreneurs of necessity and entrepreneurs of opportunity.

tide riseAlfa Demmellash, Co-Founder & CEO of Rising Tide Capital, created Rising Tide Capital to transform communities by providing entrepreneurial training and support to low-income individuals building their own businesses. The typical profile of a Rising Tide entrepreneur – someone who is almost always an entrepreneur of necessity – isn’t what you might think: She is a 41-year old single mother of two children, who makes an average of $33,000 per year, but needs $50,000 to survive and support her family. Demmallash’s own mother resembles this profile; she started a dress-making business out of her home in order to raise enough money to bring her daughter (the same daughter who went on to Harvard and started Rising Tide) from Ethiopia to the United States.

Demmellash’s approach to training entrepreneurs is to provide more than just financial capital – Rising Tide’s programming also provides knowledge and social capital by mixing up who participates in classes. “You don’t want to continue to concentrate poverty,” Demmellash said.  It’s essential to have people with different educational and experiential backgrounds in a classroom so that everyone learns from one another. Exposure to different ideas and different people is what sparks innovation, creativity and collaboration. As of 2015 there are 1248 graduates of Rising Tide’s program (which started in 2006), of which just under half are in business today, with many more businesses in the pipeline.

The same goes for Chanda Gibson, VP, Corporate Service & Real Estate at Goldman Sachs – a lot of what Gibson does involved integrating Goldman Sachs employees into the city and community around them. Everything from local walking tours and dine-out nights are offered for employees, and local business owners are featured in the Goldman Sachs employee eatery to build relationships between employees and local business owners. When Goldman Sachs moved a large portion of their NY operations to Jersey City after 9/11, there were 600 employees who lived in Jersey City. Now there are 1200.


Maria Neives, Pres. & CEO Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, also believes in the power of mixing up her members at the Chamber. She keeps event prices low to encourage participation by all members, be it Goldman Sachs or the entrepreneur operating out of her or his home. She also actively works to pair younger businesses with more established businesses at events to increase knowledge sharing and relationship building.

These three organizations – Rising Tide, Goldman Sachs and the Chamber – all work collaboratively to further their organizational goals for building community success. Rising Tide Capital was named from the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” because Demmellash and her co-founder knew it is essential to give people the tools to build their own boats for when the tide comes. By collaborating, these women are helping to ensure that people have the tools and support to build their boats.

Affordable Housing

The idea of mixing up both the approaches to providing affordable housing and where that affordable housing is available was the focus of our next two speakers: John Restrepo (Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation) and Timothy Henkel (Pennrose Management Company).

Jersey City Mayor's Office via CityLab
Jersey City Mayor’s Office via CityLab

The Episcopal CDC rehabs multiple smaller properties around Jersey City each year, with a commitment to provide 30 affordable housing units each year, both for rental or home ownership. Restrepo underlined that working with other local CDCs and housing organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, is essential in order to keep development growing in the neighborhoods that most need it.

Pennrose, a multi-state operation, focuses on larger-scale but geographically contained projects – building sites that have upwards of 100 units, of which a percentage are rated affordable (generally determined to be under 30% of an individual’s income, based on the average median income (AMI) of the area). Pennrose also pays special attention to building mixed-use facilities that can house other organizations of benefit to the tenants, including things like daycare centers, fresh produce grocery stores, or community health centers. Henkel highlighted the importance of making sure that the management staff of mixed-income building remember the original purpose of the building so that all tenants are treated with respect and dignity.

Supportive Policies

Neither job training and creation, nor affordable housing are possible without policies that support and drive development, ideally in equitable ways. In every session over our two days, policy discussions were an integral part of spurring growth while balancing its effects to benefit the greatest number of people.

Policies that highlighted developer responsibilities to the community included requirements for local-hiring, percentages of affordable units built, and inclusionary zoning (more on this in a moment). In return, developers receive tax abatements, sometimes only available in specific areas of cities that would benefit from redevelopment (i.e. neighborhoods that are not on the waterfront). Other legislative policies that assist with community development or redevelopment also include the Community Reinvestment Act, abandoned properties legislation that penalizes property owners who do not keep up their properties, which can mitigate blight, and neighborhood stabilization grants.

Back to inclusionary zoning: in March of this year, the State Supreme Court stripped the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) of its power, which was created to ensure that municipal zoning included affordable housing around the state, for non-compliance. This now moves the responsibility of the courts to determine if municipalities are compliant with the Mt. Laurel Doctrine to provide affordable housing. Now that municipalities may face litigation for a lack of affordable housing there is a scramble to determine if and how much affordable housing is necessary. If municipalities are sued and found non-compliant, they may have to provide higher-density affordable housing than they might otherwise.

The Port Tour

Our private tour of the GCT-Bayonne Port was a unique experience. Led by John Atkins, Pres. & CEO of Global Container Terminals and by Beverly Fedorko of the NY Shipping Association, we were able to go deep into the dockyard to experience this state-of-the-art facility.

IMG_1473Once again, mixing things up seemed to be the key to success: technological advances in HD cameras and recognition software allow inspections of incoming trucks to be done remotely, with the vast amount of data – including container ID, truck origin, weight, and which container the truck was there to pick up or drop off – could be collected in a single stop through a computerized system monitored by individuals in a control room elsewhere on the grounds. An estimated 34,000 gate transactions (where trucks enter and leave the Port) are processed each day.

The same automation has enhanced safety systems like pressure pads that signal when a driver has stepped into a designated “safe zone” while increasing efficiency. Atkins underscored for us several times that the shipping industry can be a dangerous place to work, but since automating a vast majority of the systems, accident rates have fallen 60% at Bayonne.

cranesThere are mixture of four-story automated cranes, where efficiency and the least number of people are needed, with fully human operated cranes on the ship loading/off-loading side of the operation. Human operators 152 feet in the air shoot along the gantries with 20- and 40-foot containers, dropping the grappler pins into small holes at the corners of each container with mind-blowing precision. The efficiency and precision is beautiful to watch, as are the transport cars whizzing along tracks near the ships that look like a 40-foot cross between mobile shelving units and grappling-claw arcade games.

Atkins said that the port is actually more efficient than fully automated ports elsewhere in the world, because you have both the calibrated efficiency of the automated systems and the dynamic responsiveness of the human operators. The most efficient crane operator at the Port is a woman, and Fedorko spoke about the great benefits of hiring veterans, who have been trained for situational awareness, extreme environments (things like weather), and an esprit de corps that makes them good team members in a fast-paced, precision-based environment.

global cranesThe economic impact of the Port is huge – $21.2 billion in personal income (most jobs are in warehouses that handle the goods going on and off the ships); $53.5 billion in business income; and $7.1 billion in federal, state and local taxes. When the first container ship, the Ideal X, left New Jersey, the shipping industry was revolutionized. LNJ ’10 alumnae Anne Strauss-Weider reminded us before we set off on the bus tour that there is nothing free about this multi-step, hundreds-of-miles journey of goods. But if consumers mandate free-shipping, then the ports – and surrounding infrastructure – need to be ready to handle larger and larger boats, so that more goods can be moved a minimum of times. Currently, the GCT-Bayonne Port is ready to do so.

In Conclusion

So what can leaders learn from this? When everything is working, it’s like watching a precisely choreographed ballet with hundreds of performers, and it’s the precision that begets fluidity and grace. Economy of movement and efficiency are, in fact, beautiful to watch because we are creatures of rhythm and order. We create community out of chaos, regardless of circumstance, regardless of whether or not that community is created to lift up all citizenry or to leverage power and take advantage of those in weaker positions than our own. Ideally, we are building community in a way that raises all boats, that gives people the tools to build their boats according to their own needs and design. To do so requires planning, communication, iteration, and adaptive strategies for a dynamic world around us. It’s up to us to figure out how to do that.

crystal_balls__by_pootienarnaFortune telling is a tricky game when it comes to community development – it’s difficult to know how and what will be successful in creating and maintaining dynamic cities and towns. No one person has the ultimate answer because each crystal ball reflects a slightly different future.

For me, it’s more of a “Yes, and…” approach – we need to have many visions of the future and to try multiple ways to get there. Mixing up strategies, projects, supportive policies and most of all, working collaboratively to do so, is our charge.


By Beacon Redevelopment (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site.  For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at:

Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.

lead nj logo       Dodge JPG



“Thank you for hosting Communities in Conversation. Having the opportunity to build new partnerships, share resources and problem solve with such a wide variety of community stakeholders was remarkable! The framework and format used created a truly valuable experience for everyone. I look forward to participating in future events like this.”

– Jaime L. Angelini, MA, DRCC, AMTP, Statewide Director of Disaster Services and Special Projects at the Mental Health Association