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Mayor Sharpe James: Pulling the Chute on Newark's Decline

Is there a way to balance the competing needs of access and privacy? Should the Social Security Administration try again to make some of their information available on the Web?

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 say, "I know less than you" or "I'm not sure of it."

I don't think we're in a stage where we are as knowledgeable of it, where you have complete willingness to have this coordinated regional approach. Right now, everyone is fending for themselves. The coordinated effort will come later.

It's a new ballgame, a new toy in the hands of everyone. While everyone is playing with their toy now, you have less opportunities and willingness to get together and coordinate. Everybody sees a different need and uses it different, so you don't get the complete coordinated effort now. But it will come in time.

Q: Newark has received nationwide attention recently for its new $250 million performing arts center. Why did this project succeed?

A: First of all, I had a vision that cities must remain competitive. Urban cities can no longer bear the brunt of just being a social experiment station: Put the jails there, the methadone clinics, the boot camps. Put everything that no one wants in urban cities. I then developed the best of the public/private partnerships.

Recognizing the need, recognizing the importance, finding the best partners, we simply said, "Just do it," and we never looked back at the naysayers who said "it couldn't be done." We wanted to make our city more competitive, more of an attractive place, more of a place where tourists would stop. Make it a more viable city. Change the image. There's a whole litany of reasons that made us go after it. And we brought the prize home.

Q: How has the role of government changed when it comes to revitalizing a city such as Newark?

A: I think the old role was that government was looked upon as a service agency. We picked up the trash and provided police and fire [protection] and other services to the people. Today, government must assume a visionary approach. It must ask itself: What quality of life does it want for its constituents 10 years from now, 20 years from now or 30 years from now?

And then local governments must not only serve the people but, more importantly, build and construct a future model for people to live in. A better way of saying it is that we have to keep government abreast of change. It's not just serving and being on the defense. It must become proactive, pro-visionary. It must become the architect of the future. Otherwise, what we find is that everything else grows around your city and you are left behind again.

Q: To help improve conditions in cities, would you like to see a return to the days of federal revenue sharing?

A: Federal government is
a creature of local government. There should be a fair return on our dollar. I don't think the forefathers ever envisioned that the federal government would be as large and as cumbersome and, more importantly, trying to micromanage local government.

I thought all politics was local. So, to some degree, we have to continue to question the intrusion of federal government and its self-perpetuation and growth. Now, Congress sees themselves as an entity in their own right. They don't see themselves as a conduit for local government, but we have federal "this" and federal "that." I just don't believe the framers of the Constitution saw where Washington would become the megastructure it is today.

Q: What other projects is your administration working on to revitalize Newark?

A: We want to develop the waterfront. This is a $70 million project. We're going to deal with a baseball stadium -- the best minor- league baseball stadium in America. We're going to connect our city with the airport with a downtown rail link, so that the residents of Newark have access to the fastest-growing jobs in the region: transportation. You can see the airport, but getting to it is a difficult task.

We have Science Park with 3,000 new jobs. Newark will become the microbiology center of America. We stole the Public Health Research Institute from New York and brought them to Newark where they have never been more happy. We beat the Big Apple!

We're going to change the face of Newark forever. We've brought back Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The only Fortune 500 company that left a decade ago, and we talked them into moving back.

Q: With the economy in such good shape today, are you optimistic that cities will rebound as well and halt their decline over these past several decades.

A: It won't come because of the euphoria and the wonders of the present economy, because that is a statistic that varies from year to year. One year you are celebrating and the next year you are mortified. One year you are a hero and the next year you are a villain.

Until we really talk about reform and tax structures, the financing of local governments; until we come up with a uniform financing structure that will support local government and stop the exodus of industry from urban cities to suburban sprawl, more importantly [the migration of jobs] out of our country to Mexico; when we read that they can make the Michael Jordan sneaker in a foreign country for $14 and sell them here in our economy for $125, our cities will remain at risk. We're at risk because we are moving industry out to produce a product that demands significant dollars from the individuals who could have been working to make the sneaker. How do we look urban kids in the face, charging them $125 for brand sneakers when it costs $14 to make in a foreign country using cheap, almost slave, labor?

You are up today, down tomorrow. It's a pinball machine where you don't know where the eight ball is going to fall. I don't think that's something we want to rest our laurels on. We need to look at a tax structure that would give a clear finance stream to our urban cities. More importantly, we need to bring back industry and jobs to put our population back to work. That is what we have to do.

"We wanted to make our city more competitive, more of an attractive place, more of a place where tourists would stop. Make it a more viable city. Change the image. There's a whole litany of reasons that made us go after it. And we brought the prize home."

May Table of Contents

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.