WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual breakfast Feb. 6, celebrating local businesses and Mayor Robert Parisi’s State of the Town Address. The Employee of the Year Award was presented to Michael and Giuseppe Elifani, and the Citizen of the Year Award was presented to Rich and Linda Rizzolo.
Parisi began his speech by acknowledging the 2018 achievements of West Orange High School athletes and, beginning with the girls’ soccer team, which won the Essex County Tournament and the first North 1, Group 4 championship in program history. Additionally, head coach Sean Devore was named New Jersey Coach of the Year and junior player Natalie Nevins was named Essex County Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
The WOHS girls’ indoor track team took home the team title at the Essex County Championships in December, and Parisi also highlighted the WOHS marching band and cheerleaders, who have both won state and national awards in the last year.
A number of students were also acknowledged by Parisi for their academic achievements, including Class of 2019 valedictorian Daniel Feinblatt and salutatorian Max Dickman.
“Wherever life may take them, each of these students speaks to an inspiring school system that has achieved the objective of providing opportunities for young minds to flourish,” Parisi said. “These impressive young men and women give us each hope for our nation’s future and remind other students about the unlimited possibilities presented to them each day in our schools.”
Two new members of the West Orange Board of Education were sworn into office in January, and Parisi acknowledged Terry Trigg-Scales and Cheryl Merklinger in his speech, wishing them well in their inaugural terms on the BOE. He also welcomed Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, who was sworn in in January to the West Orange Township Council.
Parisi presented Michael and Giuseppe Elifani with the Employee of the Year Award during his speech, describing how the brothers grew up in West Orange after moving to the United States with their parents from Italy as young children.
“They graduated from the West Orange school system and both began their careers with our Department of Public Works 35 years ago, in January 1984,” Parisi said. “They have both climbed the ranks of our public works department from entry level positions to the boss of their respective divisions, Michael serving as supervisor of the shade tree division and Giuseppe as the supervisor of the sewer and pump station division. I receive many complimentary letters, emails and calls about our employees and the services they provide to our residents, but without question, I receive more praise and thanks for the Elifani brothers than anyone else. They represent the best of local government and they have set a very high example of excellence for generations of coworkers.”
Rich and Linda Rizzolo were presented with the Citizen of the Year Award, recognizing their volunteer work in the school district. Rich Rizzolo is the current president of the West Orange Scholarship Fund and was a member of the BOE from 1998 to 2004. Linda Rizzolo was one of the original organizers of WOHS Project Graduation and went on to spend 13 years working in the high school guidance office.
“They’ve been a fixture in school circles and in the West Orange community for more than 40 years,” Parisi said. “Their contributions in that time and even today remain immeasurable and we offer our thanks for a lifetime of caring.”
Rich Rizzolo spoke briefly at the event, joking that when he received a message from the mayor in December asking to call him back, he thought Parisi was asking him to do something.
“I said to Linda, ‘the mayor called me and he didn’t say why,’” Rich Rizzolo said. “‘Could it be he wanted me to do something? How could I possibly refuse?’ I called back the next day and he told me that Linda and I had been selected Citizens of the Year 2018. I thought to myself, I should ask for a recount.”
Rich Rizzolo said that both he and Linda were inspired by the volunteers they had seen before them to get involved in the community and the school district.
“In each case, we were inspired by the volunteers who had come before us,” Rich Rizzolo said. “Presenting diplomas at graduation and calling students on stage to receive scholarships on senior awards nights made it all worthwhile for me.”
According to Parisi, more than 1,000 new homeowners moved to West Orange in 2018. He spoke not only about the new people but about the new places in town, including Mayor James Sheeran Park and a parking lot in the arts district to serve the West Orange Arts Center and Luna Stage.
“We hosted the Hispanic flag raising, celebrating 21 Latin countries; we celebrated the Jamaican flag raising; and we celebrated our first-ever Indian flag raising, all on the steps of Town Hall,” Parisi said. “We sponsored our first participatory budgeting referendum, only the second township in New Jersey to offer this involvement.”
West Orange voters overwhelmingly chose to support the construction of a playground for children with special needs, and Parisi said that the construction of the playground would begin at O’Connor Park this year.
“From border to border, season to season, we are blessed with great spirit and the conviction of our beliefs,” Parisi said. “We are surrounded with hardworking people giving meaning to our small corner of the world, making a difference in people’s lives and inspiring each of us to fulfill life’s potential.”
Parisi also discussed redevelopment in his speech, saying that Phase II of the Edison Village project will begin this year. Also scheduled to be completed this year is the Central Avenue housing redevelopment, a joint project with neighboring Orange that will bring affordable housing to the Valley section of town.
“Essex Green Shopping Center, an anchor for our community in the center of town for more than 50 years, is currently before the Zoning Board hoping to finalize plans for a more than $20 million renovation of the property, providing additional square footage of retail space, better access to the complex and cosmetic renovations, preparing them to be a competitive, attractive and important corporate partner in West Orange for another 50 years,” Parisi said. “At Executive Drive, the second part of this redevelopment zone is still in the planning stages and still has several open issues. As part of this consideration, we continued to work to determine the viability of developing affordable senior citizen housing on top of our existing library building, as well as determining the feasibility of moving the main library to the Executive Drive site.”
The plan for the renovation of one of the office buildings on Executive Drive has already been approved, and Parisi said in his speech that it remains to be seen whether a new library, a senior center or a dog park will be built on the property.
Parisi also highlighted other construction projects that were completed in 2018 or are currently in progress. The entrance to the Ginny Duenkel Pool at Colgate Park is being renovated, the parking lot on Pleasant Valley Way will be modernized and a dam will be installed at the pond in Degnan Park to alleviate flooding issues this year.
“Each new year guarantees nothing but promises, unlimited possibilities — possibilities provided by new investment, new ideas, new projects and improvements to old ones,” Parisi said to close his speech. “We find new challenges and together we will find new solutions.
“We are West Orange. We may be different in how we look, how we got here, how we think, the way we live, what we eat and how we pray, but we are bound in a commitment to this home and to each other,” the mayor continued. “Though we may disagree at times, with each success and with each failure we help to define what it means to be West Orange. We should commit that each new year be better than the last and that each new day is a step toward believing that. There may never be perfection but there is greatness all around us, from the students who inspire us to the businesses that serve us and the many people that bring pleasure to this journey and joy to this community.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of WOSD