As I stood in the wood-paneled elevator of the brand-new Prudential Financial Co. of America tower complex on Broad Street Tuesday morning, I had one nagging feeling.
Surrounded by politicians, luminaries, and captains of industry wearing thousand-dollar suits, freshly-pressed shirts, and silk ties as shiny as the rims on a Maserati, I felt a bit underdressed.
Sure, I always look a bit, shall we say, unconventional, but I have my own style, courtesy of eBay.
Yet despite my appearance, I had somehow found myself being escorted on a whirlwind VIP tour by John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential, the current No. 29 on the Fortune 500.
Tagging along for the tour were some very impressive local and national power brokers, like Sen. Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., and Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno, who, it seems, has been relegated to tasks like this while our governor is off on Chris Christie’s Excellent Presidential Adventure in some cornfield in Iowa.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, CEO John Strangfeld and Mayor Ras Baraka share ribbon cutting duties.
As we were shunted through conference rooms, executive dining suites, and cubicle farms and a rooftop park in the $444 million building, it was painfully obvious I didn’t belong. But amazingly, nobody seemed to give me a second thought.
As we made our way back downstairs to a cavernous presentation hall flanked by 10-foot-high projector screens broadcasting time-lapse videos of Prudential Tower’s construction, I could see Booker was in his element - smiling, cracking jokes, taking selfies, and exchanging effervescent, bubbly banter with Strangfeld and Guadagno.
I could see this was the sort of event where Booker really shines: a face-to-face opportunity to highlight the public-private partnership in bringing his vision of a “new” Newark to life.
As I hovered around snapping photos and listening to Strangfeld and Richard Hummers, vice president of enterprise services and financial systems, pointing out this and that, I remained a bit skeptical of the narrative.
After all, Prudential may not have built this gleaming new office building were it not the beneficiary of generous tax incentives. But whatever the long-term effects of Prudential Tower are, the building is undoubtedly the most impressive to pop up here in many years, and the existence of such a building in a city like Newark is about as sincere an expression of commitment as a corporation could possibly manage.
We proceeded onward to the opening ceremony, where Mayor Ras J. Baraka took to the podium.
“Newark isn’t coming back - Newark is back!” he announced triumphantly, to thunderous applause. “Everything is taking hold,” he continued. “This impressive structure speaks of an urban renaissance. It has revitalized the downtown community and brought renewed energy to area businesses.”
After the ceremony concluded, following the obligatory ribbon-cutting, I was curious to hear more from Baraka about this renaissance, and the role corporations like Prudential play in making it a reality.
There is, after all, a lot of city here other than Prudential, and much of it still needs a bit of work. Baraka and his entourage seemed visibly annoyed by my presence, but he was nevertheless kind enough to grant me my 30 seconds.
“Newark is one of the wealthiest cities in the Northeast Corridor,” he began.
This, by the way, isn't quite true; Newark’s median household income in 2013, according to the Census Bureau, was just shy of $34,000 - a 20 percent increase from 2000, and certainly nothing to sneeze at, but still well behind the equivalent figure in the New York City metro area as a whole (nearly $60,000), and behind Washington (more than $57,000), Boston (nearly $53,000), Hartford ($52,000), Philadelphia ($47,000), and Portland, Maine ($44,000).
“The problem is, the wealth is not distributed to folks in the community. This building helps us provide economic growth for the city… as long as Prudential has a commitment not just to the growth of its own company, but to the growth of the city - that means it has to invest and make sure others benefit from its own growth. I think they’ve done that today by constructing this building. There’s thousands of manhours, hundreds of millions of dollars going to small, minority-owned businesses in this community as a result of it… it’s a huge opportunity for growth.”
Next I encountered Newark City Council President Mildred Crump. Unlike Mayor Baraka, she had no entourage, and, also unlike the mayor, she seemed delighted to speak to me at length about her hopes for Prudential’s impact on the city. (She even complimented my eBay shoes, just 50 bucks.)
I found her perspective refreshingly nuanced compared to the cheerleader-like tone Booker and Baraka had taken, but no less hopeful. Her priority?
“Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs,” she said, without hesitating. “Fifty years ago, this was a thriving metropolis. People had day laboring jobs, which paid good money - they weren’t necessarily executives, but they participated in those infrastructure jobs that gave the city stability. We have to build that back. Prudential, and the mayor, are committed to making sure we have it - not just at the top, and definitely not just at the bottom, but in the middle.”
There’s no question Prudential has created jobs, thousands of them, and not just at Prudential Tower; the company’s invested millions in projects like the cleanup of Military Park and the restoration of the Hahne’s Building. But it’s not Downtown, or Prudential Tower, where their clout and financial muscle are most needed - it’s in that elusive middle President Crump spoke of.
The middle class, dormant for so long here, is finally poking its head out of its shell in places like Downtown, Forest Hill and Weequahic. Whether Prudential’s influence will help, or hurt, this re-emerging middle, and to what extent, will be the real test of its commitment to Newark.