New Brunswick Redevelopment
Kelso, Thomas Summary
Oral History Transcript
DISCUSSION SUMMARY (PDF Version)
Thomas Kelso grew up in Philipsburg, New Jersey, arriving in New Brunswick in 1968 as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, he lived in Edison, then returned to New Brunswick in 1975.  That year he started practicing law in New Jersey and for a short period worked with A. Kenneth Weiner, a lawyer in East Brunswick. In 1977, Kelso started his own practice with Bob Gluck in New Brunswick. Since then, he has continued to practice law in, as well as reside in, New Brunswick. In 1982 he married a lifelong New Brunswick resident and settled in the Dewey Heights neighborhood. 
In the beginning, Kelso’s law practice “kind of did most anything, but I did a lot of real estate and land-use work.”  He then met the Democratic chairman—and future mayor—John A. Lynch, Jr., who was seeking a state senate seat. Mayor Richard Mulligan had resigned midterm, and Gilbert Nelson was appointed interim mayor. During this time Kelso “really got engaged in the political side of the City of New Brunswick.”  He said, “In the beginning of 1978, I got more involved in the Democratic organization, and at that time John [Lynch] made a determination to run for mayor. Early on in 1978, when he made that decision, he and I met, and he asked me to become actively involved in his campaign. As it turns out, I became his campaign manager during that mayoral campaign.” 
Kelso had time to commit and an opportunity to learn during the campaign, and through this he “got to know a lot of people and became involved in what ended up to be a very successful campaign.”  He added: “I learned a lot about New Brunswick during that process, which I think was very important because I didn’t know a lot about the wards and I didn’t know a lot about the history of the different wards—and just knowing a little bit about the history really went a long way toward giving me a sense of what New Brunswick was all about.” 
When Lynch was elected mayor in 1979, his law firm could no longer serve as the general counsel to Devco, and Kelso’s law firm filled that position. [4-5] He noted that this was “a key time” in the momentum of the redevelopment process.  The organizational framework of the New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco) and New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT) had already been established in the mid-1970s. Kelso believed the process “really took off” when Lynch become mayor because he had the attitude of “Let’s get going and make things happen.”  As general counsel to Devco, Kelso said, he was “involved in almost every redevelopment project since the beginning.” 
In his capacity as general counsel to Devco, Kelso reflected that, “As a young man I really was involved in something very significant.”  Kelso recalled “vivid memories” of the controversy over land acquisition in the Hiram Market; indeed, he “did the first real estate closing for land acquisitions” in that neighborhood and the adjacent area that would develop into the Hyatt Hotel.  He handled the legal aspect of the Hyatt Hotel development, including the documents related to construction and closing.  He recalled that “during the construction period of the Hyatt Hotel, the interest rates were over 16 percent,” an obstacle that failed to deter “the staying power and the willpower of the people who were in leadership roles to make it happen.” [6-7]
Kelso recognized his privilege of being involved with Devco from the outset as the attorney and secretary of the Devco board. He was able to “listen and absorb the things that were happening at those board meetings by the people early on who were very much involved in the decision making and the redevelopment process.”  These decision makers included Richard Sellars, chairman of the Devco board and also Johnson & Johnson chairman; Bill Tremain, Prudential executive; John Heldrich of Johnson & Johnson; Len Hill from the National Bank of New Jersey; Roy Epps, Civic League; and others. [8-9] Kelso said that Sellars was a “critical” leader in the revitalization process; he thought that Sellars was most influential in the decision of Johnson & Johnson to stay in New Brunswick and that his demeanor and charisma allowed him to interact successfully with political leaders. 
About the initial relationship between Devco and New Brunswick Tomorrow, Kelso said that “NBT was intended to be the ideas entity and to create the strategic planning” and that “Devco was the implementation arm.”  However, “as the years and the process evolved, I think it took on more of a different view,” Kelso said.  The role of NBT shifted to “social services and the people and neighborhoods and the community structure that was necessary to develop along with the city.”  Kelso said that this setup “allowed for a lot of continuity” when professional leadership changed. 
Kelso spoke about the success of the redevelopment process. “I believe we have been very successful—it doesn’t mean everything is perfect, but I think we have been successful,” he said.  He attributed this to political stability; since 1979 there have been two mayors involved in the redevelopment process.  This stability served a benefit: “There was the ability to know that if people were going to invest in the city, if people were going to invest money, resources, time or whatever it is, they knew that if leadership told you it could produce something, it could do it by and large. And I think that was important to be able to give people the confidence to invest in the city.”  Though Kelso said that “J&J’s commitment to the city was critical,” he also questioned whether it contributed enough. 
Another reason that New Brunswick was successful in its redevelopment? “We weren’t too big that you couldn’t see results,” Kelso said. “The city is 5½ square miles; it has a defined downtown. It has natural resources, the university, J&J, the cultural district, and the County seat.”  The impact of a project or development could be more meaningful, he thought, because of its proportion to the small size of New Brunswick. Having a theatre district and the State Theater—“a jewel”—was also critical.  Kelso recognized the long-term vision to preserve the State Theatre and to make it operational, and how Richard Sellars used his personal assets to buy the structure, a former “porno house.” 
Related to the State Theatre is the New Brunswick Cultural Center Board that formed in 1982.  Richard Sellars, Jane Tublin, Sam Landis, Ralph Voorhees, and Kelso were the original five members of the board. Kelso said that “It was critical to be able to get a structure in place, which not only would just simply own the facility but would be able to operate it and operate it successfully.”  The Cultural Center was an example of using existing assets, such as the State Theatre, and “the political stability to make it happen,” Kelso said.  He explained how the State Theatre was funded:
Dick Sellars put his assets up to allow the New Brunswick Cultural Center to buy that building. Middlesex County acquired the building from the Cultural Center for $3 million and leased it back to the Cultural Center for $1 a year for 99 years. What did that do? It was a simple mechanism to put $3 million into the building to get it to a point where you could open it up. And if you didn’t have the cooperation of the Middlesex County government, the city government, and the Cultural Center Board to look at that and say “That’s a good way to get this facility up and operational,” it would have never happened. 
The dynamic of leadership, stability, and “willingness to cooperate” stood out in this example. Later on, Middlesex County provided an additional $3 million in Open Space funds to further refurbish the theater. 
Kelso credited John A. Lynch, Jr., with the idea of the funding scheme using the County government. This led to his thoughts about the former mayor: “His leadership, his vision, his strength of character, and his ability to impose his will, if you will, on people because he was a man with tremendous ability, insight and instincts—he’s the smartest guy I have ever dealt with.” 
He mentioned the Crossroads Theatre as an example of “how you could be almost too successful.”  The organization was moved to a building that “was probably too expensive to manage and maintain,” and another pitfall was that “your artistic director shouldn’t be your managing director,” Kelso said. 
When asked whether the process of redevelopment in New Brunswick is transferable, Kelso responded with doubt.  He mentioned New Brunswick’s unique assets: “The hospitals, the university, the county government, the major corporations, particularly J&J—they’re here. They have as much of an interest, if not more than most, to make certain that the city is successful.”  He added that “The most difficult part of that is to have the community at large equally share in that—in the neighborhoods, in the social services that are provided.”  Kelso thought that New Brunswick Tomorrow created successful social programs and that “a lot of people have benefited from those services, that in many cases go unnoticed, unrewarded, uncredited.”  Still, Kelso identified a need to “promote homeownership and home occupancy,” which could increase neighborhood stability. 
Kelso pointed to the Rockoff Hall dormitory in downtown New Brunswick as a successful way that the Rutgers student body has incorporated itself into the city: “I think it’s been a great success because I think the residents in Rockoff feel part of the neighborhood there.”  He touched on the delicate relationship between renters and homeowners and the criticism that too much focus is given to the downtown.  Kelso countered this claim by arguing that there are new and expanded public schools, but that these, and other neighborhood projects, go “unnoticed because of the high profile of what we term as the ‘downtown revitalization.’” 
He spoke about how New Brunswick leaders have been proactive in staying “on the cutting edge” and positioning themselves in the “initial wave” of policy developments.  As an example, he cited the use of New Brunswick schools as “demonstration” schools.  In every project, Kelso said, there will be disagreement, but there is encouragement to develop sooner, rather than later, when opportunities might have passed: “It could be better, sure it could be better. But if we wait to make it perfect it’s not going to happen.”  Kelso thought that there might be great concepts, but they may never materialize: “You have to take advantage of what’s available to you and just do it,” he said, “and then you adjust.”  He repeated that government stability and positive relationships helped create an environment where new projects and developments can move forward. 
[Quotations have been edited for grammar and alphabetized by topic]
Conflicts during the Revitalization Process
There is pulling and tugging. How far can a hospital extend into the neighborhoods before it’s detrimental? How high can you build a building without really impinging on the neighborhood? How much traffic should be generated because you’re building too large a parking garage? Those are things you fight about every day, all day. 
Cultural Center (Politics and Financing)
The Cultural Center, and the State Theater specifically, is another example of how we had these assets already here—we had the political stability to make it happen, and that resulted in actual, tangible results.
An example: Yes, Dick Sellars put his assets up to allow the New Brunswick Cultural Center to buy that building. But it could have never opened without some other source of funds to go into that building to get it opened initially in the 1980s. Where did that come from? It came from Middlesex County. How did Middlesex County do it? Middlesex County acquired the building from the Cultural Center for $3 million and leased it back to the Cultural Center for $1 a year for 99 years.
What did that do? It was a simple mechanism to put $3 million into the building to get it to a point where you could open it up. And if you didn’t have the cooperation of the Middlesex County government, the City government, and the Cultural Center Board to look at that and say “That’s a good way to get this facility up and operational,” it would have never happened.
So, again, we had these assets here already. The County government has been here for a long time, the City government has been here for a long time. But it was far-thinking leadership, it was the willingness to cooperate. and the stability of knowing that you could get it done and it would be successful—and it has been successful. 
Flexibility in the Revitalization Process
Don’t be so myopic to think that it can’t adjust, because you’ve got to strike when you can. I think the City has always been able to do that. It has to do with political stability. I use the term “political”; it’s really “governmental stability.” [29-30]
John A. Lynch, Jr.
Because of his leadership, his vision, his strength of character, and his ability to “impose his will” on people—he was a man with tremendous ability, insight, and instincts (he’s the smartest guy I have ever dealt with)—he had the ability to pull the things together that were needed, including the ability to move the County in the direction that it needed to go. 
Johnson & Johnson
The question you always have to ask yourself is, “Have they really done as much as they could?” because you always think they could have done more. And what was the net effect of J&J staying here in the long run—the people who are there physically in the building, are they really participating on a day-to-day basis in downtown?
I still think that’s a debate that people can disagree on. I personally have always felt there was more that they could have and should have done within the city. But no one would argue that they haven’t done a lot. I would never say that. 
New Brunswick’s Assets
You know, for better or for worse, the hospitals, the university, the County government, the major corporations, particularly J&J, they’re here. They have as much of an interest, if not more than most, to make certain that New Brunswick is successful. 
New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT)
When we look at all of the social programs that have taken place through NBT, they have by and large been very successful. I think a lot of people have benefited from those services, which in many cases go unnoticed, unrewarded, uncredited if you will—not that they need to be. 
New Brunswick Tomorrow (NBT) and New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco)
Structurally it was set up such that, as I understood it, NBT was intended to be the ideas entity and create the strategic planning, and Devco was the implementation arm. As a practical matter, it didn’t evolve that way, although they worked very closely together. As the years and the process evolved, it took on a different view.
NBT ended up more on the human side of things—you know, social services and the people and neighborhoods and the community structure that was necessary to develop, along with the City; Devco really was its own strategic implementing entity. They worked, obviously, very closely together; you got cross-board participation. [10-11]
Richard “Dick” Sellars
I always thought that Dick Sellars was such a critical, early leader in the revitalization. I’m sure that he was the single most important decision maker with respect to Johnson & Johnson deciding to stay in New Brunswick. But also I think that he had the personality to be able to interact with, in the political arena, people like John Lynch and even County representatives. It always seemed to me to be a very strong, positive working relationship that he had. He had that charisma; he was a very charismatic guy.
The State Theater was a jewel the city had that early on was recognized by strategic planners, but also in the political arena and the J&J arena—it was critical that we maintain it, preserve it, and get it up and operational. Creating a live theater presence within the city was critical.
One of the things I always will is how critical a role Dick Sellars played in that. I don’t think most people realize that when the State Theater was in private ownership and it was a porno house, the property was acquired through the use of Dick Sellars’ personal assets.
Success through Political Stability
I think we have been successful. To a great degree, it’s because of political stability—meaning that through all of these years, you essentially had two mayors, which is fascinating when you think about it. And I think also that there was a stability within the council, and the council working hand-in-hand in understanding the process. It was important to have that kind of political stability. You can argue whether one-party or two-party is a good thing or a bad thing. But I’m just looking at it practically. It served a purpose here because there was a lot of political stability; there was the ability to know that if people were going to invest in the city—if people were going to invest money, resources, time or whatever it is—they knew that if leadership told you it could produce something, it could do it. That was important—to be able to give people the confidence to invest in the city. [11-12]