Business growth pivotal to post-recession turnaround in Vineland

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Vineland is New Jersey’s largest city at 69 square miles. Michael Hill spoke with its mayor, Anthony Fanucci, about how over the years the city has been fostering a business-friendly environment and how it’s affected the town and the people in it.

Hill: Tell me this, how did you pull this off in Vineland — 14 percent unemployment rate during the great recession 10 years ago, now below 6 percent 10 years later. How is that possible?

Fanucci: An awful lot of hard work. It’s a combination of a variety of things. One, like I said, a lot of hard work, a little bit of God’s grace and some great marketing.

Hill: What’s coming to town — what kinds of businesses? Why is Vineland attractive to them?

Fanucci: We  have a variety of different businesses coming in. Predominately Vineland is known for its food processing, its agriculture and produce, and we have a significant number of those types of businesses coming in and locating. Cold storage, there’s been a boom in the cold storage facilities in the most recent couple years, so we see a lot of expansions. We have glass houses because Vineland was known for it silica sand many years ago, so we’ve had several expansions there which not only include the facility expansions, but employee expansions. We have been working on a technology initiative in the city of Vineland trying to create a smart city concept here and that has pushed a lot of these small tech companies in to start opening their eyes in Vineland and looking at some things there for us. Our marketing has reached out, not just regionally, but nationally to look at other companies from the industrial perspectives, too. We’re looking at bringing in companies now from pre-cast concrete plants to local businesses. We’re seeing engineering firms and attorneys, and accountants — a lot of small businesses popping up all over the place. And then of course the medium sized business are starting to grow, and we’re really starting to gear toward that sector as well. And Vineland has a tremendous amount of land, a phenomenal industrial park. We own all our own utilities — from electric, water and sewer — so that allows us to be significantly more competitive in the market when we’re trying to seek out a company and woo someone to be here.

Hill: With this kind of attraction, people moving in, what are they saying when they come to Vineland. When they decide to set up shop in Vineland, what do they tell you?

Fanucci: The interesting thing is we get a lot of ‘wow’. We get that wow factor like, “Wow, I never knew you were here,” or “Wow, I didn’t realize how big of a city this is,” or “Wow, I didn’t realize you had all your own resources like this,” and “Wow, we see a business-friendly administration.” They don’t necessarily get to see that in a lot of places, and we’re very pro-business here because I come from the small business sector, so it’s important to me to see small business growth. As you hear a lot, it’s the backbone of the country. Well, it most certainly is, and it’s certainly the backbone of our region.

Hill: Welch’s was found in Vineland as well?

Fanucci: Correct, we have a lot of rich history in the city of Vineland, and Welch’s was one of them. General Mills had Progresso Foods here, which was founded at one point. They have relocated in the last couple years which created a little bit of a hole in the city but our team got very aggressive. We back-filled their plant within 10 months of their exodus, which was phenomenal because we’ve got a great reputation. We have great resources here.

Hill: Big agriculture town.

Fanucci: Yes, sir.

Hill: How many farms?

Fanucci: In excess of 200 commercial farms in the city of Vineland.

Hill: More than 200 commercial farms in Vineland? How big is Vineland?

Fanucci: Vineland is a little over 69 square miles in its entirety, and it’s a lot to comprehend but we’re larger than a lot of townships and boroughs and different regions in the area. Of course, not by population, but definitely by square miles we are the largest town in the state.

Hill: What challenges does the size then represent in terms of governing the town?

Fanucci: It’s interesting because our resources get spread out so far because logistically we are so large so you need a larger-than-average police force, a larger-than-average fire force — people to cover that, EMS — and then of course road crews and departments. There’s over 300 miles of roadway in Vineland. A small portion belongs to the state, a small portion belongs to the country, but over 260 miles belong to the city directly. So infrastructure is always a challenge, especially owning your own utilities. So we want to make sure we maintain the integrity of the utility and the quality of the service we deliver and the lower rates that we’re able to provide.

Hill: I know you’re in the south, a lot of people know that, and I know sometimes the towns and counties and so forth in the south kind of feel that the rest of the state isn’t really paying attention to us. Do you kind of feel that way sometimes?

Fanucci: On occasion we do, but a lot of it is our fault, too. We’ve changed that since I’ve taken office. We’ve marketed more aggressively. We’ve expanded our relationships. We’ve had a tremendous amount of respect paid to us from Trenton and the Governor’s Office. The Governor’s Office has been very kind to the city of Vineland. The Senate has been very kind, and the Assembly here now. We have a lot of different representation, and a lot of that is part and parcel to the relationships that we have been able to form — myself being out and networking amongst our folks in the state and just trying to push the positive message here. There’s so much positive that we’re so thankful for and we’re blessed to have in our region and we want to spread that love and that message all throughout the state.

Hill: When you think of the marketing campaign that you have done and getting the word out about Vineland, I understand Vineland was just in a national publication as well.

Fanucci: Correct, we’ve been — several times in the last couple years — we’ve had some national publicity which is phenomenal because for years we had nothing and now we’re getting recognized because we are pushing it out and showing people what quality we have here, what our attributes are and what we can bring to the table. You know, as I mentioned earlier, we’re so unique in having all of our own municipal utilities that we’re very competitive against the big markets. So companies that want to relocate here, in many cases, can find themselves maybe 8, 10, 12, 15 percent below in electric rates, depending on what their consumption is, compared to that. And it’s huge for some of these carriers, especially in the cold storage market, food processing market, high users. So we have our own generation station here so Vineland can become self-sufficient as well.

Hill: You mentioned the population is not that big for 69 square miles, as attractive as it is to businesses — and businesses have proven that by moving to town — you don’t have a large outmigration.

Fanucci: No, we do not, which is tremendous because we’re over 60,000 people in the city of Vineland, and growing. We’re not exponentially growing quickly, which is OK because you don’t want that crazy growth. You want to have that steady growth, that nice pace, because then you can plan. And that’s the big thing. Currently we’re in a master plan review for the city of Vineland, so we’re going over a lot of our current zoning and what we’re looking for, and it’s nice to see that with the commercial development along with the residential development. We have a very healthy balance and we want to maintain that.

Hill: What about taxes? You have a big town, you’ve got businesses moving in and that’s attractive. What are they telling you about taxes? What do citizens here say about their taxes?

Fanucci: So it’s interesting you say that, so our tax rate in the city of Vineland is broken up into several components. One, you have the municipal tax rate — which I will say out of our big three cities in the county is the lowest — we have a county tax rate, we have a school tax rate, and we have a library tax rate and you have your open space tax, so really just five categories. Our municipal tax rate being as low as it is, is very competitive against other cities. Our county tax rate is a little bit high right now, but they’re working on being competitive in the county with getting some more advantages. But we have a great partnership with our county and even with our county improvement authority to help us drive business into the city of Vineland. So when they’re here, we offer PILOT programs and incentives as well — pilot being payment in lieu of taxes. So, when somebody wants to come in and we want that job growth to bring down that unemployment rate and we want to bring that success into the city, we have the tools and we have the business-friendly environment to make that happen.

Hill: Mr. Mayor, we’re sitting here at Bertuzzi’s Market, and one of the things I have to ask you is that as we see all this fresh produce and so forth, what does Vineland, in an agriculture sense, what does it mean for the rest of the state to have more than 200 farms? You feed the state.

Fanucci: Yeah, I mean it’s the Garden State and that stays with us here. We’re very happy. Our agricultural component is tremendous. I know from myself, and my children, and my family it’s so nice that at this time of year at any given day that we’re preparing dinner at home and I can literally drive a couple blocks down the street in my area and go to any number of produce stands to go pick up something quick. You know, “Hey, we need some cucumbers tonight, or get some tomatoes, or I need a head of romaine, or we want something else. And oh, we got some broccoli rabe today” and it’s easy, it’s quick. A lot of areas take that for granted and I know we certainly do. And our farmers are wonderful here. I mean, they are an integral part of this community. They really are a huge driving force to our success in this community because they keep everybody nourished.