by Rikki N. Massand
For Peter Cantu 31 years as mayor and 37 on township committee don’t signify any reason for change — not when he believes Plainsboro is headed toward a new beginning.
“This year we’re seeing the realization of a lot of the work we have done in the past. In a very difficult economic climate we’re seeing Plainsboro stand out for its economic growth,” Cantu said.
The man who has driven Plainsboro to this point wishes to remain in office because he’s excited about the future — enough so that he has spent several weekends over the past two months going door-to-door, campaigning for re-election to his longtime seat on the township committee. The mayor is having too much fun to stop now.
“My measure of how many more years I want to do this is really dependent on whether I continue to enjoy it. I really like what I do, and I’m proud of the community and what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m running again because I think I will still make a contribution to our community,” he said.
In the November 8 election Cantu faces a challenge from Republican Krishna Jagannathan, a 26-year-old emergency medical services educator and environmental engineer who says he better represents the current composition of Plainsboro as an educated young professional, an apartment-dweller, and an Indian-American (see story, following page).
“I find that approach to be very divisive and disturbing,” Cantu says. “I think we have a wonderfully talented Township Committee, one that brings different points of view and a lot of skills to the table. They are a diverse group of people with different sets of opinions and ideas, and they’ve served this community well,” he said.
Cantu will let Plainsboro’s record speak volumes for itself, as he praised the work done by the township committee leading to the investments that major facilities and corporations have made in the area. The mayor says Plainsboro’s redevelopment project will create a billion dollars worth of economic activity during construction phases and generate 4,800 jobs when it is completed.
“We have a $600 million hospital opening next spring and a skilled nursing facility that opened up this past spring, with a 150,000-square-foot medical office building as part of that project,” he said.
In the coming months the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will also go before the Plainsboro Planning Board for approval, and the 50,000-foot Princeton Fitness and Wellness Center at Plainsboro will begin construction. Its opening will be concurrent with the hospital’s next year.
Cantu cited Novo Nordisk’s $210 million renovation at the former Merrill Lynch facility at 800 Scudders Mill Road, which will create 500 new jobs. Cantu also commented on the latest additions to the Town Center project — a 30,000-square foot medical office building that will open in spring 2012, plus 15,000 more square feet of residential and retail space.
The mayor said the Plainsboro Public Library brings in 1,000 visitors a day into the town center, calling it “critically important to bring in life to help the retail community.”
Cantu looks forward to seeing the big investments result in a trickle-down effect, boosting all facets of the community.
“This will benefit us not only with contributions to our financial situation, but also by generating tremendous opportunities for business community, particularly the small businesses, which have struggled. They are anxiously looking forward to that,” he says. His objective is to make Plainsboro an attractive place to live, work, and set up a business.
Cantu spoke about the pride he has felt when publications such as Fortune Small Business magazine ranked Plainsboro in the top 100 places in the U.S. to live and launch a small business. Also, in each of the past two years New Jersey Monthly has ranked Plainsboro in the top 100 places to live, and the township came in seventh overall last year.
“One of the things that we’ve done in Plainsboro is to recognize the concerns of all people in the community, including apartment dwellers or regardless of where they live. Some things we’ve done in the past have been done directly to address their issues, such as building code enforcement and housing code enforcements.”
Cantu says the committee has always welcomed input from residents.
“We have an open process in this community. If people want to get involved they can submit their application for involvement in various ways to the township. We consider people based on merit and qualifications and we will continue to do it,” he said.
Quality of life also translates into traffic and commuting in Plainsboro. Cantu, chairman of the Transportation Management Association, has worked on regional growth initiatives in his career.
“I think it’s critically important that we move towards improving mass transportation opportunities for the community. We are served by a railroad station within close proximity and New Jersey Transit’s 600 bus line,” he says.
Cantu has envisioned a new bus service in Plainsboro that would provide opportunities to serve the new hospital complex and offices as well as the residential communities in town. Cantu is optimistic about seeing it sooner than later. He said he has been working with New Jersey Transit as well as some private entities to assess the necessary steps.
In Cantu’s view, strategic planning has been a hallmark of Plainsboro government. He says five to six years ago, ahead of the recession, the committee had concerns over the town’s economic climate. The committee then instituted a focus on staffing and other financial issues to maintain relative stability in the municipal purpose tax rate.
“We classified it as creating a climate for economic growth and success,” he says.
The mayor said since 2008 property taxes have been a hot-button topic with a lot of people, and rightfully so. But while his opponent claims the township does not make any efforts to reduce taxes, Cantu said the big picture makes a substantial difference.
“You’ve got to look at the record. When you look at Plainsboro and the property tax bill, about 70 percent of it is school taxes, another piece is county and other taxes, and the other 15 percent is municipal taxes. The municipal tax rate in Plainsboro has ranked at or near the bottom of the municipal purpose tax rates in Middlesex County for years. This past year we maintained an increase of less than a penny in our municipal purpose tax rate.”
“To claim that we haven’t done our best to moderate that and control it is really just not correct. It just reflects a lack of understanding of the financial situation of Plainsboro Township,” he said.
Cantu says the proof is in Plainsboro’s achievement of the highest bond rating (AAA-rated by Standard & Poor’s), which recognizes the financial control and management of the community.
Cantu said along with economic growth as a focus, a balanced community plan was adopted. Balance of open space preservation and land use was key as 50 percent of the community is dedicated open space. Diversity of housing opportunities and means of economic growth comprise the other two-thirds of the plan.
With some businesses hurting for visibility even within town centers, Cantu says he has gone to retail and merchant centers to meet business owners, and through a cable TV show the committee tries to highlight what exists and encourage people locally to shop in those areas and take advantages of the businesses.
“We got out to each one of the four shopping facilities in Plainsboro to focus attention on businesses within those complexes. I visited three and interviewed a few of the retailers and business owners in each and we will be scheduling visits to the fourth,” Cantu said.
Communicating the good qualities of Plainsboro to prospective businesses or homeowners is a step Cantu looks to address more going forward. The mayor said the committee has done a couple of things to boost the marketing of the town as the new developments such as the hospital begin to take place.
A new, more interactive town website has been planned but not finalized. Cantu cited the contract approved with Thomas Boyd Communications in early September as an example of Plainsboro’s marketing. The mayor believes that modifying and updating the town’s brochures, “one of the vehicles used to acquaint people with Plainsboro, educate them and promote the opportunities that exist here,” will help spread the word that Plainsboro is not only a nice place to visit, but also a good place to live.