A fiber optics company hopes to bring high-tech manufacturing back to Trenton

Redevelopment of the historic John A. Roebling and Sons site would bring high-tech manufacturing back to Trenton, says Princetel CEO. Officials are considering the plan.

A fiber optics manufacturer headquartered in Hamilton, New Jersey, is hoping Trenton City Council will name it the redeveloper of a historic building in a first round of votes Tuesday.

The estimated $4 million project that Princetel wants to bring to the Chambersburg neighborhood could generate more than 300 new jobs over a decade, the company CEO said.

According to the company, half of the jobs would require a high school education, an appealing proposal to city leaders who want to revitalize the neighborhood.

Princetel CEO Barry Zhang wants to move a manufacturing plant from White Plains, New York, closer to the company’s central operations in Hamilton. He said the White Plains operation employs approximately two dozen workers.

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Zhang said the company would also move about 20 of Princetel’s Hamilton-based jobs to Trenton.

“This is the right place to hire the kind of people we need. White Plains is the kind of community for people to go to New York,” said Zhang. “So we need manufacturing people who actually live nearby.”

He has his eye on a site in a block of six vacant buildings that were once a part of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, dubbed Roebling Block II.

At its height, Roebling was one of the area’s largest employers with up to 5,000 people on the payroll, according to historian Clifford Zink who has written a book on the family and their legacy.

Roebling made flat wire, the kind used for measuring tapes, metal rakes and the Slinky.

Founder John A. Roebling designed New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge and his son, Washington, built it, Zink said. The company also made the steel rope for the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“These were the kind of jobs where people could come and have a variety of different skills,” Zink said. “If you were highly skilled, you could be a wire drawer, which means you drew wire to make it smaller and smaller.”

Workers without advanced skills could operate other machines, and it allowed the robust Italian immigrant population in the city at the time to lay roots.

“The old saying was, when you got a job at Roebling, you were set for life,” Zink said.

In the 1970s, the company gradually began to stop production as the machinery and buildings became obsolete for that kind of steel manufacturing.

The buildings were underutilized as warehouses until the state took over the sites through eminent domain in the early 2000s. The buildings have sat empty since.

Back then in its heydays, steel cable making was the high tech of the time,” said Zhang before a tour of the site hosted by Mayor Reed Gusciora. “Now we’re talking about fiber optics, so that’s the high technology of today.”

The ordinance that would name Princetel the redeveloper of the building needs City Council approval. After that, details of any tax credits the company qualifies for would need be worked out with the city’s economic development agency.

A first read of the ordinance will take place Tuesday.  

City leaders, including Herbert Ames with the Capital Region Minority Chamber of Commerce, have high hopes for this kind of development.

“It’s going to really help motivate the neighborhood and possibly have more work done in the neighborhood, and residential parts around these buildings, and so it’s going to be a snowball effect,” he said.

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