WHYY is a partner in a new New Jersey collaborative reporting effort launching today called Voting Block. We’re trying to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across the Garden State ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election. WHYY is one of a half-dozen news organizations that will follow a group of neighbors throughout the summer and fall as the race develops, holding events and online discussion groups. Other reporting partners include WBGO, WYNC, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
Paulsboro, N.J. does not have its own history museum, but Gary Stevenson’s basement comes close.
It’s where the lifelong resident keeps a number of artifacts from the early 20th century left behind by the town’s first mayor, Gill Hannold: a wooden desk, some personal papers, his wheelchair.
Stevenson also has on display an original seat from the Hill Theatre, what was once the town’s marquee entertainment venue.
Paulsboro Mayor Gary Stevenson. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
But even though Stevenson makes an effort to preserve Paulsboro’s history, as mayor, he spends most of his time thinking about the town’s future.
(He is also a local funeral director. “I can marry you and bury you,” Stevenson said, “and I’ve done that quite a few times on the same day.”)
There is plenty for him to think about.
Paulsboro is facing a glut of rental properties, Stevenson says, which has led to a feeling of increased street crime. The two-square-mile town has seen at least three murders in as many years, as the police department struggles to afford more officers. And the public school district is having to spend more money on special-education students while receiving flat state aid, which has resulted in layoffs.
“Every time I think I’m getting five steps ahead,” said Stevenson, “here comes a tidal wave in and it wipes out the progress. Just gotta keep going. I’m optimistic.”
Paulsboro may well be at a turning point, but so is New Jersey.
The race to succeed Gov. Chris Christie, who is restricted to two terms as governor, nears a crucial point in the campaign: the June primary.
Two Republicans and four Democrats are the leading contenders to run the Garden State come 2018, inheriting an underfunded pension system, skyrocketing property taxes, and a sputtering school funding formula.
Paulsboro is paying attention, because whoever follows Christie could make a mark on the small town of six thousand residents — for better or worse.
Take housing, Mayor Stevenson’s main issue. The former volunteer firefighter started a housing initiative to combat neighborhood blight in Paulsboro. The town government tries to identify abandoned or dilapidated homes, demolish some, and rehab and sell others.
An abandoned home on Beacon Avenue in Paulsboro. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
But the process of taking control of a blighted house from a landlord or bank can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Not to mention that refurbishing a home costs a lot of money, no small matter in the working class town just across the Delaware River from the Philly airport.
“Do I get upset when I see Camden getting $10, $15, $20 million to rehab neighborhoods and I get nothing? You’re darn right I do,” said Stevenson. “They need to spread that wealth around a little better to the smaller towns and not just concentrate on the big cities.”
Stevenson, other public officials, and residents say that the deteriorating housing stock and an influx of out-of-towners have contributed to what many say feels like a more dangerous climate in Paulsboro.
Police say crime is not on the rise and officers are taking a more measured approach toward crime-fighting. (Earlier this week the Paulsboro Police Department received a community policing award from the state Attorney General.) But the town has also grabbed headlines in recent years for homicides, street fights involving police, and opioid overdoses.
“We kind of have the blue-collar area of town, the suburban area. But yet in parts of our town we have more of an urban area,” said Barry Corradetti, who runs the neighborhood watch. “If you look at a city like Camden, we kind of reflect that, on a much smaller scale. But we have those same issues.”
At a recent public forum held by the mayor, residents expressed support for police but said more had to be done to secure Paulsboro streets before a serious crime — even a murder — happens.
Paulsbor resident Christa Cooper. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
“I’m afraid the next time it’s going to be one of our babies!” said Christa Cooper, a lifelong Paulsboro resident.
Cooper said she could not remember a more unsettled time in her hometown. “Things have gotten worse here in the last three, four years,” she said. “And then last year it’s gotten to be unbearable. In the last months it is just, ‘What on earth is going on?'”
School funding, a perennial issue in New Jersey and a major talking point in this year’s governor’s race, also hits home for Paulsboro residents.
Scott Hurst, father of two young children in the Paulsboro school district, speaks out at a school board budget meeting. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
In the last two years the Paulsboro public school district experienced spikes in its homeless and special-education populations, which required additional spending.
But for the last seven years, Paulsboro has received flat funding from Trenton, as it watched nearby towns get increased state aid.
The growing school budget reached a tipping point this year, when the district laid off 10 faculty and staff members and moved aides and custodians to a cheaper health plan.
Out of sight, out of mind
There is a feeling that because of its small population and location in the southwestern corner of New Jersey, Paulsboro is neglected by Trenton. It is a problem residents hope will improve with a change in gubernatorial leadership.
“[Politicians] are most definitely going to have to take this small town into consideration, so that we don’t turn into a city with even bigger problems,” said Cooper. “There are small little towns that are suffering big time because of cuts that start in our government.”
That is not to say that Paulsboro is a rough town with nothing but bad news.
A Save-A-Lot is set to open its doors as early as next month to become Paulsboro’s first new supermarket in years. Earlier this month the town — with top-notch high school football and wrestling programs and even bigger fan bases — watched Paulsboro High grad Julién Davenport get picked by the Houston Texans in the NFL draft.
The newly opened Paulsboro Marine Terminal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
And the Port of Paulsboro opened in March, promising to bring economic opportunity back to an area that lost jobs as the refinery industry downsized over the years. (Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor, and state Sen. President Steve Sweeney helped bring that project to fruition.)
But Mayor Gary Stevenson wants to do more, such as hire more code enforcement officials and open up land near Interstate 295 to developers, things that may require the help of the state’s next governor.
“We’re kind of like out of sight, out of mind,” he said, “and I’m speaking for a lot of mayors in small towns.”