Cory Booker – the mayor of Newark, N.J. – sat down for a press conference before he spoke at the Center for the Arts as a Distinguished Speaker. In attendance were reporters from WNED, WBFO and The Spectrum.
WNED: Buffalo and Newark are similar in some ways: both industrial cities that have gone through decades of decline. A lot has been made of Buffalo's inability to attract large companies here; Verizon flirted with coming here but didn't. What's your approach to attracting a big company or an innovative company to a city that doesn't have the best reputation?
Cory Booker: Well, I think for us, it's a multifold answer. Number one, you have to make the economics work for the company. I've seen everybody from Oracle.com to Manischewitz come to the city of Newark, number one because the financials work. And then number two, I think the perception of the city can be a problem. I think both Buffalo and Newark get a bad rap, and for [Newark] at least we have a lot of new things going on.
We have a new arena, a new arts center, arts and cultural buildings going up, and in addition to all that, both cities have seen crime go down. A lot of these companies understand that for us, we have a lot of competitive advantage. Buffalo has its own things, but I know that for [Newark], we have the best transportation infrastructure on the Eastern Seaboard. It's a big college town in the State of New Jersey, and there are plenty of things to help us make our case.
WNED: The State of New York and Buffalo were offering up to $3 million per job and all these other incentives at large companies to come here. Do you support throwing all that money at the possibility of job creation?
CB: Look, I feel you have to be very strategic, and the bottom line has to work out. If you're throwing money at jobs, I think it has to work out on another end – either the economic benefit or other benefits to your quality of life that are going to be the same. That's why we in Newark just pull together and strategize; we don't want to race to the bottom in terms of expending our public treasury in trying to attract jobs. We want to work together in trying to identify the three or four or five things that make us a unique city in terms of doing business, and that's some of the things I've mentioned before.
So for us, we have a lot of great experience attracting new jobs, new investors and even new housing in this bad market. I believe every city has something great to offer; it can reinvent itself, whether it's Detroit flirting with the movie industry or Newark becoming a hub of transportation and logistics.
I'm a big believer in cities, and there was a logic to why they started, and as you said, maybe the big industrial days have gone, but Buffalo existed before the Industrial Revolution. There's always something about a city, with its infrastructure, with its history, with its aggregation or arts culture and education that can make it an attractive place to bring businesses.
The Spectrum: You obviously have a sense of humor, as evidenced in your "feud" with Conan O'Brien.
CB: He's a bastard. I just want to say that for the record. He, too, has an obnoxious amount of hair, and I feel that he, too, should liberate that scalp.
TS: How vital do you think that sense of humor is in running a city like Newark?
CB: You know, in this job it is rough-and-tumble being the mayor of a big city. It really is, and you can't take yourself too seriously. I believe that you have to be yourself in what you do, and my friends that know me know that I have a really horribly corny sense of humor. They know that I'm a sucker for inspiration.
You just have to put your heart into what you do and not worry about popularity but rather stick to your purpose. That's really what I try to be about. Have fun with the job as best you can, because there are days that are going to be so rough that a real definition of courage is just going to be getting out of bed and getting your shoes on and getting out there and doing another day. And if you can't laugh at yourself, most importantly, or find joy, then you're not going to last long in a position like this.
WNED: The economic-development crowd around here likes to talk about home-run projects on job creation and creating jobs that require a minimum of a bachelor's or master's degree. In the city, there's a high rate of poverty, and the education level in those neighborhoods is not very good, and therefore, those jobs wouldn't appeal to the people in those neighborhoods. So how do you reconcile that?
CB: Well, again, you're going to have to find strategies that work for your cities. We have a problem on both ends. You are a university town like we are and, like you I'm sure, we were tired of seeing students come out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University Law, business school, all these students get their degrees, and then we have a brain drain. All these students go elsewhere to do their work. So, we had to solve the question of how do we keep those people engaged and living and working in Newark.
One way was to turn these campuses from commuter campuses and building dorms, which we've done since I've been mayor. We're planning others for Rutgers to really try to create that quality of life. We are trying to do home-run projects; we've got one going right now where we're going to turn a whole area between downtown and some of our campuses – a street called Halsey Street – where we are turning the whole area into affordable space for teachers, charter schools, nightlife, and other things.
The other thing you have to understand, though, is that right now, in the current economy, we have to provide opportunities for the people who didn't wind up going to college. They are the people that need jobs right now. So, we just have to use our transportation logistics to lure companies like Pitney Bowes to move their biggest facility in the region into our city – hundreds of jobs. We've got Mimeo.com, which is one of those document producers where you just send an electronic document and they print and produce it for you – hundreds of jobs. We just got (and this is perfect for me because of my caffeine addiction) Starbucks has a major distribution place for their dairy production called Bartlett's Dairy, which will create 400 jobs.
So we're playing hard to those strengths because we know that, like this area, we have lots of vacant land, lots of brownsfields [abandoned industrial and commercial facilities available for re-use] especially around the largest airport in the region, the largest port in the region, [and] we're surrounded by major highways. You can get to a third of the nation's population from Newark in under three hours. So, these are jobs that are well-paying and don't require that college degree for people to apply…
Buffalo is really an amazing city and you all have a lot of the infrastructure that Newark did. You are a major college town like Newark is. you have compelling reasons to continue the growth of your city economically. I have a lot of faith in America's cities. Pericles had this great noble vision that cities would be places where all things could come together and manifest the divine. And I still believe in that – 80 percent of Americans live in cities or in their direct suburbs. I got a chance to meet with the mayor [of Buffalo, Byron Brown] earlier today and he has a vision for every day: blocking and tackling, singles and doubles. Occasionally you're going to hit a home run, but I think the momentum of the game is going to shift more toward the cities, and I feel that Buffalo will benefit from that.