Rutgers Oral History Archives

The # 15 Oral History Website in the World

New Brunswick Redevelopment

Vega, Jeffrey Interview Transcript

Interview with Jeffrey Vega

            Listokin:         So, the way we're starting this is really: Can you tell us something about yourself?

            Vega:             Sure.

            Listokin:         You know, where you were born, grew up and how you got into New Brunswick?

            Vega:              Sure. Sure. Well, I'll take you as far back as being a fellow at Eagleton Institute and being aware of New Brunswick as a student. Back then, you were warned not to come into downtown. It was, you know, "You stay on the campus. You take the . . ."

            Listokin:         And this was roughly when?

            Vega:              This was – sorry, I started Rutgers at Cook Campus when it was still called "Cook College," in 1985 and then went through Cook and then was accepted in '90 through '91 for the Masters Fellowship Program at Eagleton Institute, and a wonderful program and year. But it was still very separated from New Brunswick. You kind of heard some of the issues of revitalization, that there was some sort of effort. But as a student at Rutgers, you didn't get too much of the details here.

            And when I finished graduate school, I actually started working for The Center for Non-Profits, and my role there was to provide technical assistance to small non-profits funded by DYFS. So I'd come into New Brunswick to work with a couple of non-profits, and I've known some other individuals from New Brunswick that were on the Board of the Center, like, Dave Harris.

            Berkhout:       Uh-huh.

            Vega:              So I had some knowledge of the community prior to coming.

            Listokin:          Um-hmm.

            Vega:              And then I was at a reception for an assistant dean at Douglass College, and there was a board member by the name of – a former board member by the name of Ramon Elione who saw me, spoke to me, and he knew there was an opening at New Brunswick Tomorrow, asked me to submit for it. I did. Ted Hardgrove called me in, interviewed me about five different times in five different ways, in committees and lunches and things like that, and then I was hired. So, I was hired at New Brunswick Tomorrow March 16, 1993, and I've been there ever since in different capacities. So, I've seen the organization itself evolve and the city evolve in terms of the revitalization efforts and it's been a wonderful process to witness and to be part of it.

            Listokin:         Well, trying to keep somewhat to our very rough script . . .

            Vega:              Sure.

            Listokin:         Okay. I can imagine what some of the motivations were. But maybe if I can get your perspective from J&J and the city and university, just the different players, why they were coming to the table to try to spur on the revitalization.

            Vega:             Well, from when I became part of New Brunswick Tomorrow and what I have heard and what I've seen done is, that there was an effort to pull all different partners together to deal with a variety of issues of downtown redevelopment, neighborhood development. At that time, New Brunswick Tomorrow's mission was just being focused by John Heldrich to focus solely on the health, human service and education issues that impact residents that live in our neighborhoods, and we were moving away from – at the time, we were doing more, like, beautification programs. We were doing like, Lionel Hampton concerts and funding those kinds of projects, as opposed to dealing with some of the deeper, more profound, human/social/health issues of our residents.

            Listokin:         And the concerts were done for what? For quality of life . . .

            Vega:               Quality of life, promoting the arts and things like that. The organization moved away from that as it was attempting to implement what the board at that time still calls, "the holistic model," where it's comprised of seven task forces that are formed according to the human life cycle from infant to senior, along with a couple of critical issues: education, health and then another task force that was created about 15 years ago, an evaluation assessment, with the aim of evaluating the outcomes of the other task forces.

            So, what we did was to invite more residents and service providers, institutional leaders and others, to come around those task forces. So collectively, there are about 200 to 250 people that helped to guide the work of New Brunswick Tomorrow. So, we just listened to what the neighborhoods and the community had to say in terms of: What are the needs? From youth employment, to daycare, to the need to intervene in the issue of teen pregnancy, to the issue of supporting teachers in the educational system. So as you can imagine, I could go on and on and on in terms of all the issues that came forth.

            Berkhout:       Um-hmm.

            Vega:             And then for us, trying to respond with the money that we have and the money that we could raise to those issues and then try to create some programs or interventions and evaluate them and sustain them over time. So a lot of the social programs that are in existence today in New Brunswick really emanated from our organization, like the Youth Services System, that somebody by the name of Dave Blevins now is director of. That thinking started at New Brunswick Tomorrow, and we provided the seed dollars, and now the city pays for it completely. That's the approach that, then, the New Brunswick Tomorrow took, and has remained true to, to making initial investment, facilitating it and then cutting the umbilical cord so that others then take it on, and we then take all of our resources, financial and human resources, and devote it to other issues in the community.

            Listokin:         So, I guess if you had to characterize what NBT is doing, versus what a standard social service, and agencies in the city, or other levels of government would be doing, what is the relationship?

            Vega:             Sure. Very different. We're not a service provider. We don't provide direct services. We foster collaborations. We are a catalyst, and these are words that, even prior to me coming to New Brunswick Tomorrow were used to describe us. When people come to us with a problem, our goal is to listen to that problem, listen to solutions, look at and tap into, let's say, our friends at Rutgers, to see who's doing research in another part of the country, so that we could help to replicate an initiative in New Brunswick, see what works, and if there's nothing that's being done, and perhaps it's a problem that's unique to New Brunswick, creating an intervention. So, that was – that has been our approach. Very different from city government, where we don't get any dollars from the government, from city government. Very different from a social service provider, where they're seeing people on the ground. People don't come through our office seeking help directly. It's usually the service providers, or institutional leaders or neighborhood associations that are coming to us for the help.                              

            Listokin:          Alright. So you're like a catalyst.

            Vega:             Correct.

            Listokin:          And a facilitator.

            Vega:               Correct.

            Listokin:         And just so we have the perspective, just tell us something like, what type of budget and what's the size of the staff, just so we have that . . .

            Vega:             Sure. The budget really fluctuates from year to year. Most non-profits use the size of the budget as a benchmark for success. If they're getting more money, it's deemed more successful. For us, that really is not a true benchmark because . . . and I'll give you an example. One year, we were working with the Housing Authority on a Hope VI project, where we were developing the case-management component, and that year – I think over three or four years – our budget really blew up by about a million dollars. The project was completed, and then the following year, it came down. Then we got a very large school to work a grant from The Department of Education. Again, our budget blew up, but I guess our aim isn't to retain the initiative; it's to change it, work within the systems, change it, make sure those efforts continue, and then we back away. If we were to retain everything we would have done from the beginning until now, we'd probably be as huge as like, Catholic Charities, or you know, if you have a $60 million, $70 million operation. But that's not our aim.

            Berkhout:        Um-hmm.

            Vega:             So, it changes.

            Berkhout:       So, your staff is about what size?

            Vega:             Right now, it's about five. We've gone – I've seen our budget go up – our staff go up – from 10 to 5. Again, it depends on the kind of projects we take on.

            Berkhout:        Um-hmm.

            Listokin:         And how are the decisions made on prioritizing what you're doing? Because clearly, the range of what you could be involved in on social services . . .

            Vega:             Sure.

            Listokin:.         . . . is huge, . . .

            Vega:             Sure.

            Listokin:         And obviously, you have to decide where you're going to spend your time and resources. So . . .

            Vega:             Sure. It's, like most non-profits, we have a board of directors. We've done strategic plans. They draw up three-year plans.

            Listokin:         Can you tell us something about the Board of Directors?

            Vega:             Sure. We have a board of directors that, since the inception, our by-laws have stated that it must be divided by a third, a third and a third. A third must come from the community, a third must come from the public sector, and a third from the private corporate sector. So it's a nice blend of different perspectives on the kind of work we do. So, these are leaders, men and women in their own sectors that bring the expertise. So we go through a strategic planning process. It's also informed by our task forces, by the, sort of, collective input of 250 plus residents and volunteers and others that tell us what the issues are, and all that gets put into a process, and then at the end, we have a strategic plan.

            The strategic plan is merely a guide to kind of point us in the right direction during the process. There are always issues that come from the neighborhoods that we didn't foresee, that then we blended into our efforts. So, that's how priorities are set. But there is some fluidity to it in terms of making sure that we don't tell a community, "This is our plan," and that's it. It's making sure that they inform us as well.

            Listokin:         And can you speak some on how NBT has evolved over time?

            Vega:             Sure. Again, by 1989 – initially, we were the planning organization, 1975, physical planning. So, we created the physical plans, and then New Brunswick Tomorrow created the New Brunswick Development Corporation as a partner non-profit to be the implementer. That, within one or two years, changed. Devco then did the planning and the implementation. New Brunswick Tomorrow then began to focus on the quality of life issues. From '78 or so until about '89, we did several initiatives. We had an Education Task Force, and we had a Human Services Task Force. And since I wasn't there, I wasn't sure how initiatives got informed at that time, but from the records that I'm aware of, there were some job training programs that weren't meant to be sustained, but they were interventions at the time. Along with that, there were beautification efforts where we would pay for flowers in the downtown. There were efforts to do concerts and bring in Lionel Hampton every year. And then along the way, I know that City Market was formed, and then they concentrated their efforts in downtown.

            Listokin:         City Markets for business improvement districts . . .

            Vega:             Yes. Special improvement districts that all businesses pay taxes into in order to do different programming, aimed at downtown.

            Listokin:         Um-hmm. So, City Market was sort of spun off by some initial efforts by NBT? Is that . . .

            Vega:             I'm sure NBT was part of the effort. Prior to City Market, there was a Chamber of Commerce in New Brunswick, and that was then dissolved and formed into the SID – into City Market. So, City Market then concentrated on doing the kind of concerts and they used to do a book fair, an effort to promote all the restaurants downtown. And again, our mission became more and more focused by '89. The Board of Directors at the time said that what we were doing programmatically with our task forces wasn't holistic enough. So, because we only had two task forces, they created the seven task forces to represent the entire human life cycle, plus the critical issues I mentioned before, and then proceeded to then start planning more holistically.

            Then between '89 to now, the present, we've sort of developed our muscle in doing more grant writing, doing more solicitation of grants to bring resources to New Brunswick, and every task force having three to five different initiatives that they're working on and managing. Now, where we are presently, there's now more of an emphasis on looking at – rather than doing singular projects under task forces, how do we create a plan that gives us the big picture?

            And so, I've just had a meeting with Professor Anglin to talk about tapping into his local and community planning expertise to help guide us into more, doing the kind of community planning we do and taking it up a level, doing it better. So, again, but through it all, the same string is being able to respond to the needs of the community. And it's a very unique mission. I've not seen another NBT-alike in any other community.

            Berkhout:        How coordinated are you with projects that Devco is doing? For instance, when they were going to redevelop a housing area, I'm assuming – you had talked about the Hope VI.

            Vega:             Um-hmm.

            Berkhout:       But what about now with whatever Devco is doing? Is there much coordination?

            Vega:             Not as much as it used to be in the past. I'll tell you that one of our efforts that was very successful was with the Heldrich Hotel. Well, they did the physical planning, and then we were part of the effort of making sure that New Brunswick residents had a leg up in the process of interviewing for the jobs that were coming.

            Berkhout:       Okay.

            Vega:             So, we brought in the Adult Learning Center. We created sort of a job search program, where people who were interested in applying first came to the Adult Learning Center. They assessed their literacy skills. These were for jobs that were mainly entry level, and so we built that bridge in that way, and as a result, 30% of their employees come from New Brunswick. So in that way, it's sort of synergistic. They concentrate on physical downtown development. We've been focusing more and more on the inner city – kind of – on the inner neighborhood projects.

            Listokin: So, just talking now about NBT, what do you think were some of the notable projects that you've been involved in?

            Vega:   Definitely, I mentioned the Hope VI Project. I mean that was an enormous undertaking, and it was significantly under budget (laughter)—under funded.

            Listokin: So, can you tell us about that?

            Vega:  This was a lead agency. It was the New Brunswick Housing Authority, where they received the dollars from the federal government to do the Hope VI Project here in New Brunswick. New Brunswick had four very – what was typical of the 50's and 60's design of – high-rise public housing. And so, our role was to develop a case management component that helped to, number one, relocate about 200 different units of families to different areas in coordination with a relocation organization called Penrose, and then for us to assess each household to determine what their social needs were. Additionally to that, bringing in the Bloustein School to do evaluation, so that later on, when everything was done, we would be able to say what the impact of the work was. Because the social end of it is the most difficult to evaluate, you know, when the other side of the Housing Authority with – in terms of redeveloping the area, you could see the physical housing; you can't see what people went through that easily. So we worked with – we brought in Catholic Charities at first, and then brought in after that UMDNJ, to again, work with residents, provide case management, counseling, referrals to all sorts of aid services by agencies that are local: Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAD), daycare, the 21 daycare agencies that are in town, bringing them around that. At the time, we also received a Welfare-to-Work grant. So we replicated the STRIVE Program that was founded in Harlem public policy, bringing that in to do the job training element.

            And it was very tough because part of the criteria that was sort of imposed on us by HUD was that, "Yes, you can help families try to move toward self-sufficiency, as long as you don't jeopardize their ability to be eligible for some of the public assistance programs that exist." So you can make them self-sufficient, but not too self-sufficient. So, dealing with those kinds of federal policies and still trying to help our local population deal with a variety of social/health/human service issues. So that was a huge undertaking.

            Listokin:         So, in some big picture numbers – this was Memorial Homes that

was . . . ?

            Vega:             Yes.

            Listokin:         There were like, how many units there and . . . ?

            Vega:             There were 188 families in the process. We only had $1.125 million to work with, and we were responsible for raising the rest.

            Listokin:         So, roughly 190 families. In very broad terms, most were relocated into . . . ?

            Vega:             Most, out of the 188, 113 – I can't remember these numbers (laughter) – 113 were, remained, in New Brunswick. The majority were relocated to the Schwartz Robeson Village up on Route 27 that's still part of New Brunswick and part of the Housing Authority, and the majority of them took Section 8 vouchers and relocated around the county. Very few – one or two households – actually left to go down south or left the state. So . . .

            Listokin:         So, roughly 113 of the 190 stayed in New Brunswick?

            Vega:             Yup. Correct.

            Listokin:         And the rest went elsewhere.

            Vega:              And the rest – and then what was redeveloped in the site were 90 units. So those residents that relocated were given the option to come back. Most chose to stay where they were at because they preferred to have the Section 8 voucher, which is portable to anywhere. They could have gone to, you know, Hawaii, if their public housing program there accepted them. So, 90 resident families moved back to the site. So all that was – New Brunswick Tomorrow was coordinating it with its partners.

            Listokin:          Some other major projects that you've done?

            Vega:              Sure. I will tell you of one that was recent, and we just finished it last year, in helping the district deal with the issue of how children are classified through the child study team process as "special education." Like other urban areas, New Brunswick also has a very high disproportionate amount of children that are classified, "special ed," not for cognitive purposes, but mostly behavioral purposes. So working with their pupil personnel services and bringing in a firm called "Behavior Therapy Associates," we developed a process where we picked two schools in the district, Lord Sterling and, I believe, McKinley, and implementing a process where it was more support for the teachers.

            The phenomenon that happens in urban districts is that teachers often get frustrated because they don't know how to deal with the behavior in the classroom. And so when little Johnny misbehaves, in their mind, "If I got rid of little Johnny, I'd have the perfect classroom." So, they do a referral slip to the Child Study Team, the child goes to the Child Study Team, gets assessed with the parent, and more often than not, the child gets classified and that, what the data shows is, that puts the child into a different kind of track. And so in the district right now, it's about 17.5% of about 7,300 students who are classified for behavioral reasons, and then it's predominantly African-American.

            So what we did is to bring in the psychologists that sit in the back in the classroom and observe just the behavior of the student and the teacher. After the classroom was over, the psychiatrist then consult with the teacher and then coaches the teacher on how to deal with that behavior so that it doesn't have to result in a referral. So that was done, and the whole process was set up where the psychologist comes into the building, the principal tells the person where to go, what classrooms to go to.

            What the results were in those two schools, were 63 percent – the other one was more 70-75 percent, referral rate went down. So children that would have been classified were able to remain there. What the district did now was to absorb that methodology, working with the firm, and doing it now district-wide to try to lessen the classification rate. And now, we've bowed out. We're happy that we started that, supported it financially for four years, and now, it's institutionalized as a process in the district. So, now, those will be children that have different lives as a result, we hope.

            Listokin:         Was NBT at all involved – I know there have been efforts, looking at the physical revitalization of the schools, and I know DEVCO helped build one of the schools.

            Vega:             Um-hmm.

            Listokin:          Did that involve NBT at all?

            Vega:             It did not involve NBT. We were on the long-range planning committee for the district for looking at those physical issues, to assure that some of our programs got built into it. Like, we have two major programs within the school district, and that is, the School Based Youth Services Program, and we have an Infant Care Center at the high school for moms that become pregnant, and those two were replicated at the new site. So that was our involvement.

            Listokin:        I know there's an annual – I think done by Eagleton – poll .

            Vega:             Biannual. Yup.

            Listokin:         Yeah. How does that fit into giving you a sense on what you should be doing?

            Vega:             It gives us, as you said, sort of a sense. It doesn't dig deep into . . .

            Listokin:         Is that sponsored by NBT?

            Vega:             It's sponsored by NBT.

            Listokin:          . . . biannual . . .

            Vega:             Yup. It's done every other year, asking a series of questions around crime, around public education, around neighborhood issues, and it helps to sort of guide our work and inform us. There are times that we need more information on a specific issue. So then we . . .

            Listokin:         But before we lose those thoughts . . .

            Vega:             Sure.

            Listokin:        How does that – so we can get a better understanding . . .

            Vega:  Sure. What we do with the report is that, there are different pieces of it. Like for example, when it comes to the crime, we share that with the local police department. When it comes to education, we work with the leadership at the public schools – to look at the different pieces that pertain to our different partners, and then we take it from there in terms of what else we need to do to deal with what the data is telling us. So that's how we use it. We understand it's a perceptual data. So some of it needs to be informed by some data and further research.

            Listokin:         So, that helps in setting your priorities too?

            Vega:             Correct. Correct.

            Listokin:         I would think. Alright. So again, you've spoken about some of the major NBT actions, you know, with Memorial Homes, with the schools.

            Vega:             Um-hmm.

            Listokin:         Any others that – I'm sure there are many things.

            Vega:             There are many.

            Listokin:         Many things that you've done. But if there's any . . .

            Vega:             Those are very significant. I mean, we've done, again, the School Based Youth Services Program, where we provide – it is the only source of mental health intervention for children in the school system. A large population, school population, are not eligible for health insurance. So this program is the only source of mental health for the child and the families. We serve 6 of the 11 schools and are trying to generate more money to cover all of the schools. But we provide case management. We provide employment opportunities at the high school. This year, we did 123 placements of teens in businesses throughout the area. And we serve about 600 kids with mental health. So that, again, is a huge undertaking as well.

            Listkin:           And where are some of the other – you've described what you've done, and I guess you mentioned one or two things that Rutgers was involved in.

            Vega:              Um-hmm.

            Listokin:         But where is Rutgers in this? Where is the hospital in this? Where is city government in this? Maybe if you can describe some of those connections?

            Vega:              Sure. Well, I'll share with you at different levels. One is on our board. We make sure that the hospitals, that Rutgers and other institutional leaders are represented on our Board of Directors, and they are the ones that help to guide and endorse every single initiative that we undertake. And then on very specific initiatives, we engage a variety of different partners. I mentioned the school based. That's about five different partners. The Puerto Rican Action Board, the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission, the Board of Education, Behavior Therapy Associates. And so those partners are on one single initiative.

            We work with city government, again, on different kind of neighborhood issues. We did something with the Mexican Consulate in trying to deal with trying to help local Mexican nationals get access to a Matricula Consular Identification Card, so that they can have some identification on them, and that would give them access to, for example, local banks. So we also have a clergy group. We bring together all – in a small 5.2 square mile city, there are over 60 different houses of worship – and so, we bring those together to deal with different issues and get their perspective on the projects we're working on, or what are the other kinds of projects we need to develop. So there are different – now, we've brought together banks to look at the issues of financial literacy – so there are many different partners in the community that we bring together on a specific, and then at a board level.

            Listokin:         So if I can ask, first, looking towards the future, what do you see NBT doing? Then I'm going to follow that by with the benefit of hindsight, looking back, things you may have done differently or, talking to us about the future.

            Vega:             Sure.

            Listokin:         Where is NBT in ten years from now? What do you see it doing?

            Vega:             In the future, trying to grow our planning process. As I mentioned before, we're just starting to work with Professor Anglin to look at how we, rather than working on single initiatives under the task forces, how do we develop more of a human service, health and education plan that everybody – that we build consensus upon . . . from all the different partners.

            Listokin:          So, a more holistic . . . ?

            Vega:             More of a holistic . . . that, you know, the plan will recognize what our assets are, because there are a lot of resources that New Brunswick has that other major cities don't. What are the gaps? Then, the other issue is that a lot of the information we've gotten in the past that have generated the momentum for our initiatives have come from institutional leaders, direct service providers. But it has not come a lot directly from the residents. That's what we're doing right now, is trying to . . . designing this process that's making sure that the plan has a huge input from residents. So that, with a look to the future and looking back in terms of what we can do better, I think that can be something we can do better.

            Listokin:         And can you speak about how, in the past, residents had that input?

            Vega:             They had it. They did have it through, whether we did focus groups, whether we did surveys through Eagleton. But in terms of developing some of the interventions, like whether it's mental health or youth employment or whatever the social issues are that we address, those issues are, at this time, more influenced by service providers, institutional leaders and other partners in the community than by residents themselves. There are services that residents need, but getting, developing, more of a systematic process that residents can participate in a more ongoing way in directing, guiding, our planning process. So that's where we're more headed.

            In terms of, I think, the way we've worked, it is good because 15 – you know, when I started with New Brunswick Tomorrow, this community was very different. It was a primarily Puerto Rican and African-American community. So, the work that we did was a little bit easier. You know, you identify a need and you connect the population to a need with the resources that are available. Now, you have a large immigrant population, which I've been told that New Brunswick has the second-highest Mexican immigrant population in the state next to Paterson, and we have a large undocumented population, and because they're undocumented, they have needs. They need jobs. They need housing. They need a whole bunch of social services supports. But the connection can't be made that easily for obvious reasons. So it challenges us with very limited resources on how to respond to their need.
            So, we are, right now, trying to develop ways on how to be more active in fundraising, trying to rely on more than just our usual J&J and foundation resources to . . . We need to expand our pool of resources to respond to some of these issues that require more innovative and creative responses than in the past.

            Berkhout:       How much has J&J provided?

            Vega:             Of our budget – this past fiscal year, it increased to $365,000.

            Berkhout:       And The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation?

            Vega:             $450,000.

            Berkhout:       So together, they're about $700,000.

            Vega:             Correct, correct. And the rest, we have to raise.

            Berkhout:       Okay.

            Vega:             And so, our budget annually is about $2.4 . . .

            Berkhout:       So, that dates back to J&J's commitment to stay in the city

and . . . ?

            Vega:             Correct.

            Berkhout:       And so is that about the same as they've been giving over time?

            Vega:             No, no, no. It's fluctuated. It's changed. It's, I think when I came to NBT, it was like, $150,000, and then it's grown, and then depending on – there's been years where they've given us one-time funding for special projects, and then that went away the following year. So it just fluctuated. This year, in comparison with last year, they gave us $330,000. This year it's $365,000.

            Berkhout:        I see. Okay.

            Listokin:         I don't know if you wanted to talk more about both the future and then looking back . . .

            Vega:             Well, I think I've given you sort of a summary of it. I will tell you that my Board, in January, held a strategic retreat, and the kind of issues that came out of that really focused more on governance issues, issues that all non-profits are being confronted with as a result of the Sarbane-Oxley. So everything from putting together an audit committee and making sure that everything we do is transparent, from setting the compensation of the executive, to all – you know, everything's transparent. That's what we, for the last couple of months, have aimed in doing and institutionalizing into the organization. So, but those are just some of the mechanics that have been put into place so that we can do what we do better and meet the standards that RS (??) are putting out.

            Listokin:          How transferable is what you've done to other urban areas?

            Vega:              It's transferable if the financial and leadership commitment is there. You know, New Brunswick in unique in that it has Johnson & Johnson, and also the link to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's, their commitment to the New Brunswick area. I don't think Campbell has had the same presence or commitment to Camden. But if they decided to do that, I mean, the mechanisms and the processes of what we do is transferable and replicable. But you need to look at the financial and leadership commitment.

            Listokin:         You sort of list of people where – any further thoughts on NBT before – that we haven't addressed?

            Vega:             No. The only thought is, one of the issues that came up at our retreat, which was that when you look at the work of, for example, the New Brunswick Development Corporation, it's much more – people can see it. You know, it's much more celebrated. And perhaps this may sound a little bit biased, but I think we have the tougher end of revitalization, that is, the community changes, and we now have, at this point in our history in New Brunswick, a population that really requires more resources, much more creative responses to dealing with the issues that come up.  Through the programs that we have in schools, we are seeing issues that, 15 years ago, were just not there. It's just, it requires much more money and much more of an engagement process to deal with. So, we're looking at what it is we've done right and what can we continue to grow and enhance to, again, as I said before, respond to these very unique issues that are here in New Brunswick. So, I'll end it with that.

            Listokin:         If we wanted to look back on some of the early history of New Brunswick Tomorrow, do you have files or things we can look at or . . . ?

            Vega:             I'm sure we do. They're in boxes and . . .

            Listokin:         You know, the minutes and things like that?

            Vega:             Yes.

            Listokin:         Pictures . . .

            Vega:             Pictures, definitely lots of pictures. Some of those pictures are hanging on our walls. (laughter) Some of them. It's so funny. One day – we used to, in the building where we've been in since our inception, one day . . .

            Berkhout:       Where are you?

            Vega:             In 390, right now, where it's the Washington Mutual Building, sort of diagonally across from Starbucks.

            Berkhout:       Oh, yes, right.

            Vega:             We're on the second floor, and we've been there on that floor our whole history.

            Berkhout: :      Right.

            Listokin:         Still have the creaky elevator?

            Vega:             No. The elevator was changed about four or five years ago.

            Listokin:         I wondered – oh, okay.

            Vega:             It used to be the only elevator in the county where it still required a manual person.

            Listokin:          Right, right..

            Vega:             Yeah. So. No. But that was modernized about five years ago, and the whole building was upset that the person was going to be out of a job. So – (laughter) But the person was okay. So, we used to have a room in the basement for storage, and we were told we needed to vacate that, everybody, all the tenants. And when I went down there, I found a plastic garbage bag with all sorts of great pictures from the 70's. I had them all framed and put them in our conference room.

            Berkhout:       Oh, great.

            Vega:             So, we have that. We have a lot of the articles that initially came out at the very beginning, some of which are very interesting.   Because you saw how people were organizing against the revitalization.

            Berkhout:       Yes.

            Vega:             So, all that is there, and you're welcome to it.

            Listokin:         We should go down and take a look.

            Berkhout:       Yeah. Because maybe then you could identify a few of the people who were organizing against it if they're still around. I don't know. Other than Briavel Holcomb.

            Vega:             Yeah. (laughter)

            Listokin:          Any further thoughts or . . . ?

            Vega:             No, that's it. I think . . .

            Listokin:         And it's not like you only have one crack at the answers. So, yeah and . . .

            Berkhout:        I guess -- one question that I have is: at some point, you must ask yourselves, "Well, how do we measure whether we've been successful or not in the revitalization?"

            Vega:             Um-hmm.

            Berkhout:       I mean, as you say, DEVCO can look at the buildings and see if it's changed populations at all who are frequenting the downtown or going to theaters or whatever. But how do you measure success in what NBT is doing?

            Vega:             Right now, on two different ways. One is through the Eagleton . . . there is a question that directly asks the community about New Brunswick Tomorrow, and your perception . . . and granted, that particular question is: number one is: have you heard of it? And then number 2, once the caller tells the person being interviewed what our mission is: do you approve of it? And so we have a whole history of how our ratings . . .

            Berkhout:       Um-hmm.

            Listokin:        So have your grades been going up . . . .?

            Vega:             Our grades have been going up. Yes, it has been going up.

            Berkhout:       Oh.

            Vega:             And it's the one that moves rather than, let's say, at Johnson & Johnson, it's always been like at, I think, in the 90's. (laughter) You know? And Rutgers has also been very high up. So that's a very general way that we sort of looked and measured ourselves. The other way that we measure ourselves is very specific to the initiatives we undertake. In doing evaluation work, whether it's focus groups, whether it's doing more sophisticated kinds of measurement and studies. So, those are the two different ways right now.

            The other thing that we're looking at right now is at our brand. When you go out and talk about New Brunswick Tomorrow, people don't know directly what that means. People know that New Brunswick Tomorrow is a brand for the overall revitalization process. And so when I start staying I'm President of New Brunswick Tomorrow, the first thing I get back is, "Congratulations. You've done a nice job in the downtown." And so, I say, "Well, that's not us. You know, that's Devco," and then, "This is what we do." So once I explain what we do, people are impressed and they always wished that there was an New Brunswick Tomorrow. So that would help then to – we're trying to think through how we better brand ourselves to communicate that, and then generate the kind of support, the development and the money for it, and then in that, then there's a much better opportunity to measure ourselves. So right now, everything's blended into the overall brand of the revitalization process.

            Berkhout:       Right. Okay. I guess the only other question I would have has to do with other people we might interview.

            Vega:             Sure.

            Berkhout:       We do have Ted Hargrove's schedule.

            Vega:              Okay. Oh, wonderful. I just spoke with him on . . .

            Berkhout:        Now, Paul Abdalla

            Vega:             Paul Abdalla I do not . . .

            Berkhout:       Abdalla. Was that NBT or was that Devco?

            Vega:              That was Devco. I believe he was the first Devco person.

            Berkhout:       Okay. Great. And so, is there any – well, there's Steve O'Connor, whom you know, who is trying to finish his dissertation.

            Listokin:         Did you know Steve?

            Vega:             Oh, yeah. I worked with Steve for four years.

            Listokin:         Oh, okay.

            Vega:             We just lost touch, and I know he's left New Jersey. I just don't . . .

            Berkhout:       Right. Who was before Steve?

            Vega:             Ted.

            Berkhout:       And who was before Ted?

            Vega:             I do know that name, and it escapes me right now. It's a gentleman who was in a position for only about two or three years.

            Berkhout:        So, Ted was there from when? The late 70's?

            Vega:             Yes.

            Berkhout:       Okay.

            Vega:             Yes. Ted was there for about 14, 15 years as President.

            Berkhout:        I see. Okay.

            Vega:             So, he could tell you better than me.

            Berkhout:       Okay.

            Vega:             And then before that person, there was a person that was there for two years, and I don't remember his name either. It's in the files. And my understanding is that, that person then moved on to be President of Devco.

            Berkhout:      We know who it is. People have given us his name. Yes. Okay.

            Vega:               I'm going blank. Yeah. I'm sorry. I'm drawing a blank right now, and I do . . .

            Berkhout:       It was before Paul Abdalla. It was somebody else, I remember that. Right.

            Vega:              It starts with an "N." Nivens? No?

            Berkhout:        Something like that.

            Vega:             Okay.

            Berkhout:       And there was also Bill Wright. But I guess that was the Cultural Center.

            Vega:             Yeah. That was. Yeah.

            Berkhout:       Okay. Because we also have him – sometime in September, he's coming up. So we'll see him.

            Listokin:         Are you involved with the Cultural Center at all?

            Vega:             No.

            Listokin:         NBT? No?

            Vega:             No. The only times that we've worked with the State Theater on promoting their programs on trying to close the gap between them and the community.

            Berkhout:        Right.

            Vega:            So when there are performances, like if there are performances and they have extra tickets, we'll take them. We'll go to the Senior Center. We'll still try to give out those tickets so that the community can take advantage of going to the theater.

            Berkhout:       Right. Okay.

            Listokin:         Okay. Well, thank you.

            Vega:             But I think this looks like a great list of people with a lot of the history.

            Berkhout:       Yeah. We understand that Richard Sellars and Jim Burke from J&J are not really able to be interviewed anymore.

            Vega:             That's my understanding.

            Berkhout:       That's unfortunate.

            Vega:             Yeah. Jim Burke, when I first joined NBT, had given NBT a grant to an initiative called the "Teacher Excellence Award."

            Berkhout:       Um-hmm.

            Vega:             He was really, prior to being the National Chair of DARE, he was very much into education. So he had given us dollars to recognize excellent teachers in the district.

            Berkhout:       Are there people from J&J who are much involved anymore with NBT?

            Vega:             Yes. It's just different. You know, for example, the contribution department now has a strategic plan that they're following. And so, last year – actually, two years ago – we were told that we had to fit into that.

            Berkhout:       This is Michael Bzdak?

            Vega:             Michael Bzdak and his boss, Sharon D'Agostino.

            Berkhout:       Um-hmm.

            Vega:             And then this year, they were much more in understanding our process, and not only NBT, but Devco, the Cultural Center. So they're treating us differently than they do other grants.

            Berkhout:       Oh, I see. Okay.

            Vega:             So, there's been some advancement and changes in the relationship between the revitalization partners and Johnson & Johnson.

            Berkhout:       Okay.

            Vega:             You know, I don't think we'll ever have a John Heldrich again.

            Berkhout:       Yeah.

            Vega:             I mean, he – this was very personal to him. It was his vision initially, and now, it's different. Now, it's a different set of processes and relationships.

            Berkhout:       Um-hmm. Do you have much to do with the city government? With the mayor's office?

            Vega:            Interacting with them and making sure that they're aware of what we're doing, in that way.

            Berkhout:       Right.

            Vega:             As a non-profit organization, my Board was very – very strict in making sure that there was a level of separation. For example, I signed a conflict of interest form that my Board requires of me. It's part of my contract that says I cannot give to political campaigns.

            Berkhout:       I see.

            Vega:             I cannot attend campaign rallies in New Brunswick. So, that kind of separation . . .

            Berkhout:        Um-hmm.

            Vega:             They've been forceful in making sure staff is not engaged in that way.

            Berkhout:       Alright.

            Listokin:         Alright. Thank you.

            Vega:             Okay. Thank you. And again, my apologies for coming late.

            Berkhout:       That's okay.

            Vega:               I'm sure now, I have somebody else waiting for me. (laughter)

            Berkhout:       So, were you in the program with Keith White? Do you know Keith White?

            Vega:             That doesn't – that name just . . .

            Berkhout:       Maybe he was there a year or two later than you. But the program you were in at Eagleton is now part of the Bloustein School.

            Vega:             Correct. Yeah. It is now the two-year MPAP program. So, every time I see Carl Vanhorn, I tell him that I feel short – that I was shortchanged because the year that I went to Eagleton was the year Florio won and took Carl Vanhorn and Cliff Zukin with him.

            Berkhout:       Oh, right, right.

            Vega:             But I got to meet Roland Anglin and he was my Professor of Public Policy back then.

            Berkhout:       Oh, I see. Okay.

            Vega:            So, it was a good, wonderful experience.

            Berkhout:       I didn't realize you knew him back then.

            Vega:             Yes. Yeah.

            Berkhout:       So, we actually are having the Alumni Association – The Bloustein School is having a visioning session later in September.

            Vega:             Oh!

            Berkhout:       So, I don't know if you've been involved at all with the alumni, Randy Solomon?

            Vega:            I have not been involved with the alumni.

            Berkhout:       So, if you're interested, I'll put you on the list of people to be invited . . .

            Vega:               Please do. I often – just the other day, I was talking with a group of . . .

[end of recording]

Rutgers Oral History Archives

A Rutgers History Department Affliated Center 

This website and all content

Copyright © 2016 ROHA

Contact Us

1 Spring Street, 4th Floor

New Brunswick, NJ 08901

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.