Chamber Honors Trenton’s Mayor Palmer

Chamber Honors Trenton’s Mayor Palmer

Ramsey, Ed

Underneath his modest demeanor there lurks a streak of flamboyance. His brand new fire headquarters sprawls along Perry St. next to the former three-story headquarters slated to be Trenton’s fire museum. The new structure features a giant sign that screams TRENTON FIRE HEADQUARTERS.

“Wait till you see the helmet we’re putting over those letters,” he chuckles, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Douglas H. Palmer, Trenton’s mayor since 1990 and the 2001 Citizen of the Year as proclaimed by the Greater Mercer County Chamber of Commerce is enjoying himself at a job he loves. He will be honored at a Chamber Awards Dinner on March 20 at the Hyatt Regency Princeton.

Born in 1951 of middle class parents who made their home in the city’s West Ward on Edgewood Ave., Doug Palmer was taught by his revered dad and mother and his doting grandparents to keep a low profile, study hard and do the right thing.

And yet, that flamboyant streak was there. He was sent to a military school (BMI in Bordentown) to tame a bit. Although he is not noticeably bald, he shaves his head ala Kojak and Montel Williams. And his role model is the always flamboyant Muhammad Ali.

“I was about 12 when Ali caught the public eye,” he remembers. “I didn’t like him at first because of all the bragging that he was the greatest, he was pretty, and all that, but his charisma, skill and determination to stand up for his principles changed my mind. He took unpopular stands and his refusal to go into the service during Vietnam cost him a lot, including his boxing title. But he stuck it out, lost his title twice and came back on top again. I admire his courage, tenacity and willingness to stand up for his beliefs.”

Palmer alluded to his current dispute with the police union and some of the brass who resent the department being run by a civilian director.

“I like to be liked,” Palmer said, “but the community policing concept the department follows today is an example of taking a stand; I think it’s the right way to go. The restructuring of the department that eliminated a uniformed hierarchal chief was approved by the voters, and the voters run the town. We need a top police executive who is responsible to the mayor, and a mayor who is responsible to our citizens. Under our system, the voters have the final say.”

A gifted athlete, he played both football and baseball (second base) at Hampton College in Virginia where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and nearly made it to the big leagues, but a career in professional sports was not to be. Entering politics as a Democrat, he was elected to the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders where he served until he ran for mayor.

Forming an odd couple alliance with Republican County Executive Robert Prunetti, who shares his love of Trenton and is anxious for its revival, the pair have accomplished near miracles in turning a dying municipality, kept alive primarily by an influx of some 20,000 state workers daily, into a shining example of what the word “comeback” really means.

Together they have overseen the construction of an exciting ball park that packs fans in for every home game. A magnificent state-of-the-art sports and exposition arena has risen on an abandoned factory site bringing thousands of out-of-towners into Trenton to see a diversity of shows and sporting events, ranging from pop concerts to opera to ice skating.

Opposite this building another old factory building, once noisily busy making wire rope to suspend the likes of the Brooklyn Bridge over wide bodies of water, will become Arena Plaza featuring fine dining, shops and other appropriate facilities.

But both his critics and supporters agree his leadership and tenacity has brought about what may be his greatest triumph. Trenton has long been ridiculed as the only state capital in the nation without a hotel.

This will soon be rectified as a magnificent new $54.5 million Marriott will open on S. Warren St. adjacent to the War Memorial auditorium where New Jersey’s governors are inaugurated and where world class performances and performers are routinely presented year around.

The hotel is slated to open next month. Plans are also being formulated for an outdoor amphitheater on the river bank near Waterfront Park, the baseball stadium. A marina for small boats and medium size yachts will soon be constructed in the same area, and just beyond, with a view of the Delaware, condominiums will rise to lure the middle and upper class back to their Trenton roots.

To help all this along, Palmer has enlisted the aid and money of several civic minded companies and other institutions that have formed a sort of consortium to be the development arm of the city.

Among the heavyweights in this group are firms such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, PSE&G, The Times of Trenton, Bloomberg Financial Services, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Thomas Edison State College and Capital Health Systems. This organization, with its vast resources and enormous prestige, will pitch in to help further revitalize the city.

But, the ordinary Trentonian is not forgotten either. Hundreds of truly nice affordable homes are under construction in the North Ward and elsewhere replacing run down and abandoned dwellings.

At least three new elementary schools will be built, and the remainder of the city’s ancient grade schools will be brought to current standards. Funds are being allocated by the state Department of Community Affairs to pull down dilapidated houses and other structures too dangerous for occupancy.

And Palmer’s long struggle to convince someone to build a supermarket in the West Ward may soon pay off. The city has bought a site on Pennington Ave. that was once a parking lot used by C.V. Hill employees, and plans to sell it to a developer for $1 as a lure to provide a decent grocery store and shopping center to serve the estimated 20,000 people who live west of Calhoun St.

In storied Chambersburg, the refurbishing of its famed restaurant district has been hailed by residents and visitors alike. New street signs, lighting, sidewalks and landscaping have turned Roebling Ave. into a showplace where the mayor can often be seen dining with friends and colleagues. The nearby Roebling Marketplace is catching on as a valuable shopping location.

A light rail line, now under construction, will serve the city’s state employees and others wanting to avoid the daily hassle of bumper-to-bumper traffic as they commute from South Jersey river towns to work. If Palmer has his way, the modem trolley will run down State St. to the State House, thus making it a desirable mode of transportation for state workers and shoppers alike.

Construction will soon get underway on a completely renovated rail station to replace the outdated facility that Palmer jokingly calls a Roy Rogers restaurant with a railroad station attached.

In conjunction with the hotel completion, the obstructive and outdated “Commons” will finally be returned to vehicular traffic and S.Warren St. from State St. south will again handle traffic in both directions.

However, for state workers worried about scarce parking spaces, the mayor has bad news. Condos or new homes will soon be built on city-owned lots south of the William Trent House that are now used for parking. Other large surface lots may soon follow since the best way for the city to improve its tax base is with new ratables.

Palmer says that tax collections run about 87%, high for a locality with a large, relatively poor population. Municipal fine collections, however, are a problem and police drives to pick up violators is an off and on effort, mostly due to the heavy burden of work routinely borne by city officers.

Palmer admits that he will call for higher taxes because of ever escalating costs. But he desperately wants the state to kick in more money in lieu of taxes the state does not pay. He maintains that the state deliberately undervalues its buildings by two and one half times their actual value to keep this revenue down. And he fears that state aid may be cut as the new McGreevey administration copes with expected deficits.

“We should be getting about $40 million from the state,” Palmer maintained. “In reality, we get about $10 million.”

And then there’s the tunnel. Built along the waterfront to pacify homeowners who were tired of tractor-trailer traffic rumbling past their homes on narrow Lamberton St. 24 hours a day, the tunnel was conceived as a way to divert that traffic onto Route 29 and the “Trenton Loop.” But, on his last day in office, a departing transportation commissioner banned heavy trucks from the costly tunnel, thus negating its original purpose.

An outraged Doug Palmer, who originally opposed the tunnel, saying that heavy trucks should just be banned from city streets relented, and now faces a fight to get the bypass re-designated for the use of all vehicles.

Mild mannered, courteous, soft spoken and friendly, Doug Palmer is a born politician. He may go on to greater things, or stay on as Trenton’s mayor, probably for as many terms as he wants. Either way, he has made his mark and plans to go right on doing so.

Copyright Mercer County Chamber of Commerce Mar 01, 2002

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