WEST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Robert Parisi announced that the township will be getting a sixth jitney route this year in his State of the Township Address during the West Orange Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast at the Wilshire Grand Hotel on Feb. 8.
Parisi revealed that West Orange will add a service line covering the Pleasant Valley Way and Eagle Rock Avenue area, giving residents from those areas access to the jitney for the first time. And while the exact stops have yet to be decided, the mayor promised that the long-awaited route will become a reality in a matter of months.
“Service will be available by summer, providing a safe and reliable way for more of our residents to access local transportation,” Parisi said.
The mayor’s announcement marks the first time a sixth jitney line has been officially confirmed, though it has been discussed for quite a while. After the Township Council approved the purchase of three new jitneys in October, township engineer Leonard Lepore told the West Orange Chronicle that a new route was a definite possibility. In a Feb. 10 phone interview, Parisi told the Chronicle one of those buses will indeed be used for the route, which means none of the township’s five other service lines will be affected by having to share a bus.
But a sixth route will have an impact on the town’s finances; Parisi said operating expenses will amount to roughly $50,000, which will be factored into the upcoming municipal budget. Still, he said a route covering that area of town has always been a priority for the township, so the expenditure is not going to waste.
The new jitney route was not the only new business the mayor discussed during his address. Parisi said the township is exploring ways to develop the abandoned Selecto Flash property it recently took over in the Central Avenue Redevelopment Area. He told the Chronicle that options include everything from residential development to retail development to parking. He said the township is similarly considering how it can best use an empty lot it also acquired in the redevelopment area.
“We’re looking at all the possibilities right now,” Parisi said.
In his speech, Parisi said the ultimate goal for the Central Avenue Redevelopment Area is to complement both the Valley Arts District and the Harvard Press project, which officially broke ground in Orange on Feb. 13. He told the Chronicle that the township is even talking with Harvard Press redeveloper Joseph Alpert about how the area can be used. He said parking is desired, though it has not been decided whether it will go on one of West Orange’s properties or one of the lots with private owners.
No formal discussions have yet taken place with outside property owners regarding the use of their properties, Parisi said.
Before anything can be done with the township’s Selecto Flash property or the Biddleman property — which is currently being used by owner Peter Lu for his rice-import business — environmental remediation must be completed. And the township is on top of the situation, with Parisi telling the Chronicle that it is working with Lu and the state to pursue funding options. In fact, he said the township is additionally looking into whether some of the remediation funding can be used to demolish the structure that currently sits unused at the Selecto Flash site.
Aside from sharing those developments, Parisi also used his State of the Town Address to acknowledge those who have made a difference in West Orange during the past year. That included Msgr. Michael Kelly, headmaster of Seton Hall Preparatory School, who received the Citizen of the Year Award. It was well deserved too, according to the mayor, as Kelly has touched thousands of young minds during his lifetime commitment to education. Echoing a comment made by former Mayor John McKeon years ago, he said Kelly is easily the most respectable man he has met.
Kelly thanked Parisi and the Chamber of Commerce upon accepting his honor, pointing out that it is especially meaningful considering this year marks the 160th anniversary of SHP. In the years the school has existed in West Orange, he said, the students have regularly contributed to the community by tutoring local students in addition to other volunteer work. If anyone needs their help, he urged those in attendance to contact him.
The Employee of the Year Award went to West Orange Fire Department Chief Peter Smeraldo, a man Parisi said has made an “immeasurable impact” on the town since taking over the department in 2005. It was under his leadership that third-party billing for emergency transport was introduced, the mayor said, which raises more than $1.3 million in revenue. It was also Smeraldo who assisted in the creation of a basic firefighter-training program in the Essex County Public Safety Academy, established a compliant spaces program, helped secure a nearly $2 million SAFER grant and oversaw the takeover of emergency medical services following the closure of the West Orange First Aid Squad. Though Smeraldo will retire in June, Parisi said the chief’s influence will be felt for decades to come.
Yet when it came time for Smeraldo to accept his award, the chief was quick to shift the attention away from himself.
“At the end of the day it’s not about what I do, it’s about what we do,” Smeraldo said. “We have some great, great assets — people who come to work every day wanting to serve the community, wanting to serve of themselves. And they make (the community) better. That makes my job easier. It’s never been about ‘I,’ it’s all about ‘us.’”
The WOFD had a lot to be proud of at the Chamber breakfast. Parisi highlighted that the department responded to 7,377 emergencies; 264 fire incidents; and 4,736 EMS rescue calls in 2016. Additionally, he recognized firefighter Phil Johnson, who saved a man’s life by administering CPR for 20 minutes after the man had suffered a heart attack. Johnson was not even on duty at the time, but just happened to be at the same gym as the man.
Parisi acknowledged the West Orange Police Department as well, lauding Chief James Abbott and his officers for balancing the protection of township citizens with outreach efforts that improve their lives. These include the launch of Operation HOPE, a program that has allowed six people so far to turn over their drugs and enter treatment with the help of 35 resident volunteers. He said the department also introduced a box where people can safely deposit unwanted prescription medications.
Looking ahead, Parisi said the WOPD plans to restart its Citizens Police Academy, which will give residents a taste of what it’s like be a police officer. Above all, he said, the department will continue to demonstrate the compassion needed in today’s policing.
“We are way past the days when walking the beat was the best you could hope for in community policing,” Parisi said. “We are blessed with caring and compassionate law enforcement and legal professionals, and we should have complete confidence in them to lead us through this changing world. Their decades of excellence have earned that.”
The West Orange School District was additionally hailed as the “pride of the community” considering the accomplishments of its students. For the first time in local history, a WOHS graduate can be found in the Naval, Air Force and Army academies simultaneously, with current senior Andrei Rosu set to join West Point in the fall as well. On top of that, Parisi said the WOHS cheerleading squad placed first in multiple competitions, while the WOHS girls’ basketball team recently won the conference championship for the first time ever. The WOHS marching band even earned a national championship, he said, demonstrating their commitment.
“It says a lot about the members of the band when one of the most common complaints we receive from neighbors each year is that the band practices too long,” Parisi said.
A host of other students were recognized for their individual accomplishments too, including an international internship, honor society memberships, awards and numerous extracurricular activities. Each one serves as a testament to their parents and schools, Parisi said, and all are inspirations to the rest of the community.
The township as a whole had a lot to be proud of this past year, according to the mayor. Parisi said more than 700 homeowners moved into West Orange and new 14 businesses opened in town. In fact, he said there was more non-redevelopment related investment in downtown properties in 2016 than in the previous three years combined.
Regarding redevelopment, Parisi pointed out that the long-stalled Edison Village project is now well under way. The new library facade is also finally being installed, and the Friends of the Library has raised a lot of money despite still being in its infancy. And the West Orange portion of the Harvard Press project will start as soon as the Orange half is completed.
This coming year, Parisi said the town government will continue to provide a safe and peaceful community in which everyone can feel welcome. But he stressed that government cannot be the sole entity responsible for making West Orange a better place. Instead of complaining behind their computers, the mayor said residents should take the initiative to pick up trash, help their neighbors and start a group that could make a difference.
“We should never count on or allow government to define who we are as people,” Parisi said. “We are West Orange. But it is up to each of us individually and collectively, with purpose and resolve, to keep it that way.”
Photos by Sean Quinn