The Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries has seen how government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector can work together in New Jersey.
And he’s seen how often they do not.
As the former New Jersey Secretary of State and the current pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset County, he’s seen it all.
His experience made him the perfect keynote welcoming address Monday morning at the 2017 New Jersey Affordability Summit, sponsored by Opportunity New Jersey.
Soaries told the audience that, when he came to the First Baptist Church in 1990, he said he was asked to lead a project to build a new church. He told church leaders he would only come if he could rebuild the entire community.
In the following years, he did just that, helping the area not only get a new church but also a new medical center, new supermarkets, new parks and new affordable housing.
Doing it, however, wasn’t easy, Soaries said. And it required bringing numerous community, business and government leaders together — working on all the projects simultaneously. That, he said, was key.
“When we put together our plan, every Wednesday morning for 18 months, the mayor of New Brunswick, the town manager of Franklin and I met in my office to develop a plan for the neighborhood,” he told the crowd of approximately 500. “And, every time we had an iteration of the plan, we met with the neighborhood.
“We put together a plan that ultimately became part of the master plan for New Brunswick and Franklin Township, but, ultimately, the plan came from bottom up, not from the top down.”
Soaries, who served as Secretary of State from January 1999 to January 2002 under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, said he feels it’s time for the state’s current leaders to take the same approach when it comes to affordability.
Soaries challenged the group of government, association, business and civic leaders in the audience to solve many problems at the same time. He implored them to produce a comprehensive proposal for the next administration.
“That’s why this leadership from the chamber is so critical, because we have many moving parts that have to be addressed — and they have to be addressed simultaneously, and not incrementally, because we don’t have time in New Jersey to wait five years per project,” he said. “We need a comprehensive plan that has a process of major participation.
“The way we got a new school and got two new parks and expanded health care and got supermarkets is we divided the neighborhood up into 35 bite-size projects and the mayor of New Brunswick, the councilmen in Franklin, the pastors in the churches, the tenants of public housing, the business owners in small shops all took interest in at least one of those projects and, instead of waiting 100 years to bring the neighborhood back, we worked in cooperation simultaneously. So, if you grew up in this neighborhood and came back today, you wouldn’t recognize it.”
Government, he said, can be the biggest obstacle in the state.
After questioning how New Jersey could have more school districts than Texas and California, he gave a personal anecdote to explain how such vast layers of government are hurting the state.
“We’re keenly aware of the fact that we’re in Franklin Township that’s in Somerset County, that’s two units of government,” he said. “Across the street, where some of you may have parked, that’s New Brunswick and Middlesex County, that’s two more units of government. And Route 27 is a state highway.
“So, to put a sign on my lawn, I have to get permission from five units of government. I’ve got to pay lawyers and experts and traffic consultants and spend all kinds of resources that cost money because we’ve got so much government. And every little unit of government enjoys the power that they have to sit people like me down and say, ‘No.’ So, I’ve got to hire more people to help me change the way I said what I’ve been saying to help me get them to say, ‘Yes.’”
He implored those in the room — and those in government all over the state — to change.
“Today, you are going to be challenged to participate in a process of participation where partners can literally work simultaneously,” he said. “And if we don’t do it, then Pennsylvania and Florida, Nevada, which has no income tax at all, South Carolina, which has perfected the art of matching employment needs with educational priorities, and Texas, which has attracted businesses that have grown exponentially even in tough times, will just pick up apart.
“And we’ll be left with a shell of a state that has a worst structural deficit than we do now.”
Sories said he’s the sees the difference.
“I travel every week to other states,” he said. “I keep coming back because, while we may have more challenges than most states, we have more potential still than any state I’ve seen.”
Sories said the way to unlock that potential is simple.
“My prayer is that you will take this very seriously, because history says that solutions at times like these come to government, not from government.”
ROI-NJ will have more coverage from the event throughout the week.