Finding ways to stop urban decline might seem like a thankless job to many. But since he was first elected mayor of Newark, N.J., in 1986, Sharpe James has brought hope to a city that has suffered from a litany of urban woes over the past 30 years. Last year, Newark catapulted itself into the cultural limelight when it opened the $250 million, 2,500-seat New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
James used his trademark charisma to pull together all the public and private partners for this unique revitalization effort, and more is to come: a minor-league baseball park, waterfront development, a rail link to the airport and the relocation and return of corporations that once shunned New Jersey's largest city.
The former high-school track star has been referred to as cheerleader-in-chief for his efforts at revitalizing Newark -- a city once filled with breweries, chemical companies and small industries that produced everything from pillows to zippers. Since 1967, however, when Newark was badly scarred by race riots, the city has been in a freefall, losing industry and population, while gaining drugs, crimes and despair.
James, who got his start in politics as a councilman from the city's south ward, has earned plaudits from around the country for his efforts at turning things around. He got a supermarket chain to open a store in the crime-ridden central ward and has promoted affordable housing. The city's strong environmental track record -- Newark recycles 57 percent of its garbage -- has earned it the Environmental Protection Agency's Administrator's Award.
With the economy still humming, one might expect a city like Newark to rebound without government intervention, but the mayor knows that good times can be fleeting. To ensure against future downturns, he advocates a tax policy that treats urban centers fairly, and methods of financing that lure companies back to cities and not into the sprawling suburbs. The road ahead is still bumpy, but Sharpe James has been driving on it for a long time.
Q: Since you became mayor of Newark back in 1986, the use of information technology in local governments has grown
significantly. Are you satisfied with how efficient your city government has become through the use of IT?
A: I think we've been taking advantage of it. We've been improving. We're cognizant of its importance, and every day we are looking for more innovative ways to use technology in order to assist us with the delivery of services and to better communicate what we are doing.
We have a Web site and a 24-hour city hall, where you can come and get information. We're always experimenting with new ways [to use technology].
Q: According to the National League of Cities, there is considerable concern that the poor, minorities and those with less education may be left further behind by the spread of information technology. What is the role of city government in closing the gap between the technology haves and have-nots?
A: Our role is to be a facilitator, since we're in touch with the public. It's our constituency that we serve; we have to gradually use [technology] to demonstrate to them the importance of it, the value of it and how they can become part of the information highway. It's our job to sell it. It's our job to utilize it to serve the public, so they can become aware of it.
Q: Some of the newer trends in technology for local governments -- such as GIS, 911 and ITS -- depend on regional cooperation. How important is regionalism to Newark today vs. 10 years ago?
A: It's slow because everyone is competing with one another and everyone is experimenting. You don't get the real coordinated regional approach until everyone becomes more familiar with it. No one wants to have a dialogue and