No one I asked, not even other New Jersey residents, seemed to really know what Irvington, N.J., was all about. The only thing everyone agreed on was that there were signs for Irvington on the highway and that it was in Essex County.
Now, as I move through the town, I see no evidence of the acute poverty, crime and industrial decay that some had described to me. Instead, there are landscaped parks, well-appointed stores and well-maintained homes. Downtown is incredibly clean. Irvington, overall, has a rustic charm that is extremely appealing to those of us who have grown tired of big-city hustle and bustle. Its mayor, Wayne Smith, an African-American, says the Irvington of crime and decay is fading fast, giving way to an Irvington that once was home to middle-class families. “There are a lot of perceptions about the community that were true but are rapidly changing,” the mayor insists.
Irvington is working hard to woo new residents and investors into the community. A major makeover is under way, an effort that will completely overhaul Irvington. At the helm is Mayor Smith, who is still in his first term. Smith also is the president and CEO of Wayne Smith & Associates, a local public relations, marketing and public affairs consulting firm; chairman of the Black Urban Alliance-the African American Chamber of Commerce of N.J./N.Y.; and chairman of the Legislative Task Force of the Minority Business Braintrust. He served as president of the Irvington Council prior to being elected mayor.
Smith’s forays into business and politics have enabled him to craft alliances and develop contacts with key players and agencies in both arenas. They have also prepared him for this new test: bringing Irvington back from decline. He is optimistic that he will succeed. “We have our share of problems. We have our issues, but development is key for us.”
Development certainly is at the center of Smith’s vision for the predominantly Black town. Since his election in 2002, he has promoted an aggressive agenda to improve key areas in Irvington both economically and socially. Irvington was categorized as a “distressed city” when Smith took office, meaning it did not bring in enough money to support the cost of running its government. In fact, the town was receiving an extra $3.4 million in state aid at the time and was still having difficulty making ends meet.
Smith immediately started looking for ways to cut costs and at the same time increase Irvington’s ability to provide for itself. “We began to collect taxes that weren’t collected in the past,” he says. “We took real estate that belonged to the town but was bringing no tax dollars to us and had auctions. We sold $7 million of real estate in this two-year span. Our tax collection rate when I became mayor was about 83 percent; it is now 94 percent.”
Smith achieved that increase by boosting code enforcement, netting about $1.5 million in fines from negligent property owners. Some 30 properties went on the auction block on April 1.
Smith’s actions have had almost immediate results. In his first year as mayor, a representative from Moody’s, the independent credit-rating service, told him that if he did everything right, perhaps he would get a rating at the end of his first term. Smith proudly says, “We earned the bond rating two years early because we ran some surpluses. Our first year we cut our excess state aid in half, and now we are no longer in the ‘distressed city’ category.”
Smith accomplished all of this without any major tax hikes, which is one of the first things a less innovative mayor would have done. While he hasn’t ruled out a tax increase, he has determined that there are many other ways to boost revenues, so that if there eventually were a tax increase, it would be kept to a minimum.
Smith has also mapped out a long-term strategy to improve the financial outlook of Irvington. He is aggressively promoting the town as a viable option for investors who want to get in on the ground floor of a good thing. There are now more restaurants and fast-food services in Irvington and chain stores such as AutoZone have come in. The mayor currently is in negotiations with a major corporation interested in putting up an office building near the Irvington Bus Terminal.
Numerous tax and real estate incentives are offered to potential investors. In addition, in an attempt to keep businesses thriving in Irvington, Smith is devising ways to encourage residents to spend in the community. Last summer, Irvington was host to “Summer in the Zone,” a series of concerts where, in addition to local acts, artists such as Angela Bofield, Gerald Levert, Najee, Floetry and Stephanie Mills performed. The concerts were free, but patrons had to spend $15 at any Irvington business and present the receipt in order to gain access to the venue. This revitalized the economy, since people who are more likely to leave the area and shop at malls were lured into local stores. It also brought people from as far away as Connecticut, increasing the town’s visibility.
Consumers benefit from shopping locally since businesses are part of the Urban Enterprise Zone Program, which allows them to offer extra incentives to consumers. Sales tax, for example, is only 3 percent in Irvington, as opposed to the state tax of 6 percent.
Targeting Home Buyers
While developing businesses is important, Smith has also turned an eye toward improving the standard of living in Irvington. Since Smith took office, there have been almost 50 houses demolished in a bid to get rid of dilapidated, abandoned properties and pave the way for redevelopment. The parks have been provided with new playground equipment. The senior citizens’ center got a facelift. There are major development strategies in place for various parts of Irvington. As Smith describes it, “In the next year or two, you will see a lot of development in areas that have been tremendously blighted.”
One of Smith’s major successes has been the renovation and update of the Irvington Bus Terminal, which is the second busiest bus transportation hub in New Jersey, with 13,000 people passing through daily and more than 400 bus departures and arrivals daily. The new terminal, scheduled to be completed this spring, will be twice the size of its predecessor and will feature modern amenities: new lighting, better and clearer signs, wider bus lanes, shelters for waiting passengers and a new parking lot.
The terminal project is of particular importance, since Smith views Irvington as a potential haven for first-time home buyers, many of whom will be trying to escape New York’s exorbitant property taxes. There is an express bus from Irvington that reaches Penn Station in Manhattan in about 25 minutes, and a modern terminal may make potential home buyers more open to possibilities in Irvington.
Perhaps the most ambitious move in Smith’s bid to return Irvington to its middle-class past is his strategy to control what essentially was a crime epidemic when he took office. “The local police department was in disarray. When I became mayor, I asked what do we do about this problem? We can continue to say there aren’t enough cops and let crime spiral out of control, or we can come up with a strategy that gets a handle on it, that makes our community attractive to people who want to come back and want to invest. I realized we needed law enforcement help,” he says.
Smith looked for help, but not just in the usual places. He called up the state police, the Essex County sheriff, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI and requested their assistance in getting a handle on crime in Irvington. The result was the Essex Anti-Crime Task Force, a combination of all of the above-mentioned agencies working together to prevent crime.
According to the Uniform Crime Report, Irvington has enjoyed decreases in crime every year since Smith took office. “Do we still have some issues with crime? Absolutely, we do, but people see a battle plan and they see us on the ground,” Smith says. “One of the things that people have begun to do is [tell] us what is out there, where there are issues, and we are responding to those,” he adds.
Smith is understandably touchy on the issue of crime. He argues, “The reason it is called the Essex Anti-Crime Task Force and not [the Irvington Anti-Crime Task Force] is because crime is regional. Crime is not usually city specific. The drug groups and gangs don’t operate within one border, so we have to have a coordinated approach. State police can go anywhere. We just did a raid from a drug investigation and we picked up 19 people who were acquiring drugs and only one was from Irvington. The rest of them were coming in from the suburbs to buy their drugs.”
Word Is Spreading
Smith has no intention to rest on what he has already accomplished. “My staff will tell you that I am a pushy mayor. I have an aggressive agenda, and the only way you build momentum is to push,” he says with a laugh.
True. After all, Smith has accomplished more in his half-term than some politicians do during a lifetime in public office. What makes Smith different? Asked why he entered the political arena, Smith smiles as he explains, “Growing up and seeing people like Martin Luther King and [New York’s late Democratic Congressman] Adam Clayton Powell, I thought the public arena was one place where I could do some good. So I got involved in my neighborhood and kept getting involved.”
Naysayers would be hard-pressed to say that Smith has not done a lot of good in Irvington. He is smart, innovative and dedicated to making Irvington the best town possible. With major work still to be done, Smith plans to seek reelection in the hopes of continuing his redevelopment agenda.
As for Irvington, the word is slowly spreading that there is a movement under way in that town.
By Soroya Brantley