The New Jersey Economic Development Authority Board approved rules for the Aspire Program, a place-based economic development program created under the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act of 2020 (ERA) that supports mixed use, transit-oriented development by providing tax credits to commercial and residential real estate development projects that have financing gaps.
As authorized by the ERA, the Board approved rules that will be effective immediately for a short-term duration, enabling the NJEDA to move forward with instituting the program this year. Concurrently, the Board also approved publishing the rules for public comment prior to adopting longer-term rules.
“New Jersey’s economy is growing, and with economic growth comes the need for housing and commercial development,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “The Aspire Program is a much-needed incentive that will support the construction of new housing and commercial projects throughout the state, with an emphasis on communities that have been left out of growth in the past.”
“Supporting equitable development and growth that aligns with communities’ priorities is central to Governor Murphy’s economic plan,” said NJEDA Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan. “The Aspire Program rules approved today establish the framework for a robust policy that will support much-needed mixed use, transit-oriented development in communities all around New Jersey. Importantly, these rules also build in much-needed safeguards to ensure transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility. This is an important step forward for New Jersey that will drive sustainable, inclusive growth.”
“The Aspire Program rules that were approved today will facilitate the development of transformative mixed-income, mixed-use projects that will promote housing opportunity and economic growth throughout our state,” said NJHMFA Executive Director Melanie R. Walter. “We look forward to working with community and development partners to implement these rules, seamlessly combining Aspire and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, from the NJEDA and HMFA, respectively, and leveraging these valuable resources to produce high-impact, high-quality development that benefits our residents.”
The Aspire Program is part of the suite of programs created under the ERA to address the ongoing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and build a stronger, fairer New Jersey economy. The Board action taken today approved special adoption rules for the Aspire Program, which will go into effect immediately upon filing with the Office of Administrative Law and will remain in effect for 180 days. During this time, the NJEDA will propose the same rules as long-term rules and undertake the Administrative Procedures Act required 60-day public comment process. This dual track approach, authorized by the ERA, will allow the Authority to begin accepting applications near the end of this calendar year, when Aspire’s predecessor program, the Economic Redevelopment and Growth (ERG) Program, sunsets.
In line with the Murphy Administration’s Executive Order 63 and the NJEDA’s commitment to transparency and accountability, and in anticipation of today’s vote, the NJEDA publicly posted a draft copy of the Aspire Program proposed rules several weeks ago and actively sought public feedback. This feedback process included two public listening sessions, an opportunity to submit written overall programmatic comments, and a channel to submit detailed feedback on the proposed rules.
The Aspire Program encourages mixed use, transit-oriented development in New Jersey by providing tax credits to commercial and residential development projects that have a financing gap. The amount of tax credits a project is eligible to receive is a percentage of the project’s eligible costs, subject to a cap that is determined by the project’s location, other financing available, and other aspects of the project. Most projects are eligible for tax credits up to $42 million, but projects that meet specific criteria may receive tax credits up to $60 million. Projects that qualify as “transformative projects” may receive tax credits up to $350 million.
To be eligible for Aspire Program tax credits, a project must be located in an eligible incentive location, which may include: Planning Area 1, Aviation District, Port District, or Planning Area 2 or other Designated Center that is within a half mile of a rail transit station or a high frequency bus stop. Film production projects may be located anywhere in the State.
Projects must also meet minimum size and cost thresholds. Commercial projects must include at least 100,000 square feet of retail or commercial space. Residential projects must have eligible project costs totaling $5 million to $17.5 million depending on location.
Projects that meet certain parameters can qualify as “transformative projects” and receive tax credits above and beyond the caps that are established for standard projects. Transformative projects must have eligible costs of at least $100 million and be at least 500,000 square feet or up to 250,000 square feet for film studio projects. Transformative projects must also demonstrate special economic importance to New Jersey and leverage New Jersey’s mass transit assets, higher education assets, and other economic development assets to attract or retain employers and skilled workers.
In addition to meeting these baseline eligibility requirements, the developer of a project seeking Aspire Program tax credits must be in substantial good standing with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOL), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Department of the Treasury. Projects must also comply with environmental laws (including flood hazard requirements), meet green building requirements, and pay prevailing wages to construction workers and building service workers. Retail, warehouse, and/or hospitality establishments with a certain number of employees that are included in projects with a State proprietary interest and that receive tax credits must enter into a labor harmony agreement with a labor organization or cooperating labor organizations that represent relevant employees in the State.
In line with Governor Murphy and the NJEDA’s commitment to fiscal responsibility and transparency, the Aspire Program rules include provisions, such as a gap financing review, excess revenue sharing requirements, and a net positive economic benefit test for most projects, to ensure tax credits are awarded responsibly.
Collectively, projects under the Aspire Program and the Emerge Program – a separate ERA tax incentive program focused on attracting high-quality jobs to New Jersey – are subject to a program cap of $1.1 billion per year in tax credit awards for each of the first six years of the programs, with the cap split between northern and southern counties. Unused amounts may be carried forward each year, and any remaining unused tax credits are available in the seventh year.
The Aspire Program rules also include requirements to ensure that communities where projects are located participate in and benefit from the economic growth the project generates. As part of the application for projects, applicants must provide a letter of support from the governing body of the municipality or municipalities in which the project is located and projects with an eligible project cost equaling or exceeding $10 million must also enter into a Community Benefits Agreement with the Authority and municipality or county in which the project is located.
Furthermore, projects including newly constructed residential units must set aside at least 20 percent for occupancy by low- and moderate-income households. The NJEDA will build on the coordination and collaboration practices with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (NJHMFA) that were established under the ERG program to ensure that Aspire projects with affordable housing components comply with housing rules and meet the housing needs of New Jersey’s growing work force.
In addition to the Aspire Program, the ERA creates a suite of programs that includes tax credits to incentivize job creation, new construction, and revitalization of brownfields and historic properties; financial resources for small businesses; support for new supermarkets and healthy food retailers in food desert communities; new funding opportunities for early-stage companies in New Jersey; and support for the growing film and digital media industry. More information about these programs is available at https://njeda.com/economicrecoveryact.
The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) serves as the State’s principal agency for driving economic growth. The NJEDA is committed to making New Jersey a national model for inclusive and sustainable economic development by focusing on key strategies to help build strong and dynamic communities, create good jobs for New Jersey residents, and provide pathways to a stronger and fairer economy. Through partnerships with a diverse range of stakeholders, the NJEDA creates and implements initiatives to enhance the economic vitality and quality of life in the State and strengthen New Jersey’s long-term economic competitiveness.