50 Years in the Making: Your Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce

When I was at the helm of the Meadowlands Chamber years ago, the seas were angry as the interests of environmentalists and entrepreneurs toed parallel missions and couldn’t imagine a common path to intersect. At the MC back then, we routinely clashed with the Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, whereas today, there is an appreciation and celebration for one another.  

Today’s Chamber is a testament to the 50 years of progress that’s been made in the Meadowlands and to the promise that environmental and economic interests can come together for the greater good.  

We battled with the environmental stewards often and fiercely over the decades, while today the MC and business community are often on the same page. As far as transportation advocacy, the MC has not skipped a beat. 

Most Importantly, the MC today delivers services and relationships to each member that are far more synchronized. Back in the day, we were more catch-as-catch-can-be, more scattergun.

Communication as a Strategy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

The Chamber of yesteryear always touted communication as a strategy for getting goals accomplished and MeadowlandsUSA Magazine was launched as the anchor to get the word out. Today, the bimonthly Meadowlands Magazine is just one of many communication vehicles the MC has in print, along with the annual Economic Development and Relocation Guide and Meadowlands Live! Official Visitors Guide. 

Digital changed everything in that it has only broadened and deepened the original strategy that communication is at the nucleus of what drives the Chamber. Today, Meadowlands Magazine delivers the Chamber’s messaging bi-monthly in print and everyday via the daily news blog. 

Members also get regular email updates about Chamber initiatives, news and events. Communication has certainly come a long way, and the MC has stayed the course with video updates, Meadowlands Minute with Steve Adubato and other online exclusives.

Digital Organization Means Micro Attention 

Back in the day at the Chamber, we weren’t nearly as well organized as the MC of today, yet we did have monthly luncheons with major public officials, sports teams, business leaders and the embattled developers, meet and greets, a wide array of committees, an Annual Dinner and a Golf Outing. 

But today, your Chamber goes micro and not just macro, is better organized, and more pointed, more predictable, more user friendly and nary a week goes by without multiple options to participate on, with, or for something. 

When I first approached my longtime friend, Jim Kirkos, to ask him to think about taking my place as head of the MC, while also keeping me on to produce the magazine and consult on government relations, my suppositions were indeed spot on. Without skipping a beat, Jim just kept everything firing on all cylinders and, in time, came to manage ever so much more than was ever on my radar.

There’s No Today Without Yesterday

Looking back, I can’t help but think about the oh-so-many people who sacrificed for the Chamber — for while so many remain, far too many have gone home too soon — people who made great differences. 

  • Ron Wiss of Edwards & Kelcey
  • Ken Vehrkens of FDU
  • Fletch Creamer Sr. of J. Fletcher Creamer & Son
  • Chuck Branca of Bergen Engineering
  • Sister Theresa Mary Martin of Felician College
  • Phil Engle of Teterboro Airport
  • Lou Patrone of Goya Foods
  • Hank Esposito of Atlantic Aviation
  • Arline Simpson of Simpson Associates
  • Lenny Levine of Archie Schwartz Realty
  • Bob Ferguson of PSE&G
  • Joe Carragher of EZ Ride
  • and most especially Terri Guarino and Ginger D’Elia of my own staff 

And then, there also are so many, who 25 years later, are still raising the torch for this organization – most of whom, if not all, I am honored to still be able to call my friends. 

Most incredibly, two of the five initial incorporators 50 years ago are, I understand, still in the fold. Tony Santarelli, then of Mikasa, is the prodigal son who has been warmly welcomed back home, while Al Paradise, once chairman and longtime treasurer, had been a steady rock for me. 

Rich Branca of Bergen Engineering, Sen. Tony Scardino, Ed Russo of Russo Development, Peter Unanue of Goya Foods, John Policastro of Personal Touch Experience and Krishna Murthy of EZ RIDE were all stars back in my day and are still serving. 

Note that Hartz Mountain Industries, PSE&G and Hackensack Meridian were then represented on our board as well by Manny Stern, John Smith and Dennis McGorry.

At the same time, Leonard Stern of Hartz Mountain Industries and our friends Mort Goldfein, Marty Gold and Mike McNally gave us the wonder of Harmon Cove and the then remarkable Harmon Meadow. 

And all the while, Russo Development, led by Larry Russo, was changing the landscape in South Bergen as Commerce Boulevard became a premier destination. By the way, it also was he who changed the world with a famous lawsuit that precluded government regulators from simply and freely taking a private owner’s wetlands.

Not long ago in 2014, his son, Ed Russo, built Vermella Lyndhurst, a spectacularly beautiful apartment complex of some 296 units that have redefined just what apartment living can be. 

Vermella complexes have now risen all over northern New Jersey. And today, they are focused on an inspired redevelopment project in the Kearny Meadows.

There’s Gold Coast in Those Swamps

In the beginning, the simple truth was this: The Meadowlands, once and for long, was regarded as a polluted wasteland of leeching garbage dumps, chemical plants and truck depots, yet it had the potential for so much more. But only a few saw the potential for what could be.

State Sen. Fairleigh Dickinson – founder of the University that bears his name – saw this. Democrat Gov. Richard Hughes saw this. The South Bergen Business Association that joined our then newly formed Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce saw this. 

Any fool looking at it should have been able to see that a wasteland in the heart of the New York City metropolitan region, in the heart of the Eastern megalopolis, was perhaps a gold coast. So, Dickinson worked with Hughes and supported the improbable, if not the impossible – the 1970 creation of a State Commission that would take control of wide swaths of land in 14 Bergen and Hudson County municipalities. 

Home rule, be gone, a new sheriff was coming to town and his name was Paul Ylvisaker, a Harvard man who had most recently been at the helm of the Ford Foundation. In the beginning, he was to lead this venture, so he hired some lawyers and put together a great staff: George Cascino, Chief Engineer; Chet Mattson, Chief of Environmental Planning; and Rich Roberts, Chief of Transportation Planning. 

When Ylvisaker gave way to Bill McDowell and McDowell to State Sen. Tony Scardino, they didn’t skip a beat and kept their eye on the prize.

Movement is Everything

Key players began to come and with them, great companies in need of many employees, like Matsushita and Panasonic who came to Harmon Cove in 1970, followed by the national headquarters of Goya Foods 1971, and many others. The New York Giants came in 1976, the jobs bank at the Chamber in 1977, Pfizer-Howmedica in 1979.

In 1982 the Chamber hosted its first of many Transportation Summits and in 1983, the Meadowlands Transportation Brokerage, or Meadowlink, was born. Our primary objective was easing transportation in and out of the Meadowlands region. Designated the best Transportation Management Association (TMA), it served two-thirds of the state’s population and encompassed seven counties.  

When the Meadowlands Rail Station opened in 2009, it was the state’s greatest transit investment in over 100 years. While everyone at New Jersey Transit and NJDOT patted each other on the back at the grand opening, it was Rich Roberts, my partner in all things transportation, and I, (who later became the Chief Planner for New Jersey Transit), who had advocated for it for more than 20 years.

The back story is one with Rich Roberts, Allied Junction, and Congressman Bob Roe of Passaic County. Rich certainly sold Rep. Roe, who was then chairman of the Congressional Committee on Public Works. Rich was confident the federal government would fully fund the same to the tune of three-quarters of $1 billion, without even requiring a match from the State of New Jersey. 

It well should have been the Bob Roe Rail Station, but such is life and Rich and I did indeed and, at least, have the pleasure of calling DOT and Transit to advise them that the Feds were way ahead of them and that they were woefully behind. No one in either agency recognized or thanked either Allied Junction or us for our efforts, but what the hell, we had the victory, one as great as any that would ever happen in the Meadowlands.

And the Song Plays On

Beyond our organization’s classic functions, the MC back in the day crossed these hurdles and established these things:

  • Meadowlands Job Bank 
  • Meadowlands Job Training Consortium
  • Total Quality Management Training Consortium
  • Meadowlands Adopt A School Program
  • Youth Services Initiatives/Drop-in Centers at Area High Schools in cooperation with others
  • One Roof Inc., a third party Affordable Housing Trouble-shooter
  • EZ Ride Meadowlands Transportation Brokerage 

The Chamber also worked with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace in Jersey City to help them open their Kenmare Alternative High School for Unwed Mothers as well as their Saint Joseph’s Transitional Housing Complex. Privatized as the York Street Project, I then served as their first Chairman of the Board.

From Landfill to Destination

Finally, while I might have gotten some premature credit about the planning of the now wonderful Meadowlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, the truth is that all of the real work fell to Jim and his team.

In the planning, we scratched and tried, as best we could, to hold our ground in protecting the economic vision that was part of the legislation that gave rise to the Commission itself. With eyes opened wide, we fought for sound and balanced development and job creation, as I ran from one public hearing to the next. We dug in to face each and every assault upon the need to sustain economic development and jobs creation.

 “Do not go gentle into that good night.” 

That became our battle cry as we raged and raged. Our biggest battle was not with tourism, but with garbage. 

I nearly forgot that struggle, that the history of the Meadowlands is that two-thirds of New Jersey’s solid waste and a swath from Pennsylvania’s was to deliver garbage to our small-ish corridor every day. Enough trash to fill the entire length of MetLife Stadium every six weeks. 

Long a preoccupation of the Commission and the State, this aspect alone – trash – took more than 15 years of painstaking effort to re-route, re-direct. Not just the trash – but the thinking about the trash. 

When I left the Chamber, every landfill was closed and capped and the methane gas generated by it sold to PSEG.

The Harmony of Business and Environment

DeKorte State Park itself was already replete with flowers and fauna, trails and small trees. To sum it up, impossible things happened. 

For long, I have been but a distant cheerleader for Jim, his staff and you. But now, having closely studied how today’s Chamber has carried all of this and ever so much more forward, it’s interesting to note that the formidable concerns are still much the same — Economic Development, Education and Workforce Development, Flood Control, Zoning, Environmental Reclamation and fulfillment of the Master Plan. 

There is still work to do. Kudos to your regular and consistent Eggs & Issues programming and above all to the wisdom of your Meadowlands 2040 Foundation and communications.

Kudos also to the wisdom of your Non-Profit Committee for I once served on the boards of too many and we created a few non-profits of our own. 

And this astounds me, too, your outstanding Leadership Council:

  • American Dream
  • Quest Diagnostics
  • Eastwick College
  • Delta Dental
  • Veolia
  • Langan Engineering & Environmental
  • Kearny Bank
  • The NJ Sharing Network
  • Edison Properties
  • Wacoal
  • Genova Burns
  • Lakeland Bank
  • Onyx Equities
  • NJM Insurance Group
  • JLL
  • Mike World Wide
  • Elec 825
  • Forsgate Industrial Partners
  • Bergen Community College
  • M&T Bank
  • HSS

Equally magnificent in that they have for so long been committed and are still serving in 2023.

  • Hartz
  • Goya 
  • Horizon BCBS
  • Bergen Engineering Company
  • PSEG
  • Personal Touch Experience
  • EZ Ride
  • NAI James Hanson
  • J Fletcher Creamer & Son
  • Meadowlands Sports Complex
  • Scarinci & Hollenbeck
  • Russo Development
  • Hackensack Meridian Health

As Jim continues to affirm today:

“The Meadowlands has almost 275 species of birds that migrate to it, with 70 to 80 of those species migrating to no other place in the world but here. There are 15-active American bald eagle couples in the region. Add to this, the park systems in our Meadows, Bergen, Hudson and Essex County and it truly renders the quality of life in this region so very attractive. We have a great balance of tremendous job creation, a burgeoning economy, a highly educated workforce, a great quality of life and a reclaimed environment.”

In the early days, Tom Bruinooge, a member for all 50 years and former chairman, stood alone supporting Ronald Reagan when all of New Jersey went with then President Ford. Standing out from the crowd was something he did regularly as he was also among the few lawyers who genuinely comprehended what all the developmental vagaries of plying ones trade in the Meadowlands were going to be. And still to this very day, my old friend, Tom remains a force. 

The Chamber of the Future

Older industrial and warehousing centers also are being redefined which only recently attracted EMR Printing to its new home in Carlstadt. 

Parks too are everywhere being rebooted or newly fashioned. A restaurant on the Hackensack River, where there was extensive parking in a dirt lot, the Barge, was retooled as the River Barge Park. Connected to it is the Robert Ceberio Environmental Pavilion. Bob is another friend of the Chamber who also once served as Director of the HMDC.

Thinking of parks, I just happened to read a piece on Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus which also abuts the river. Suffice it to say that nothing about it reminds me of the Laurel Hill Park that I once knew. To simply say that it has been recreated doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

As to today, you have over the course of these 50 years, collectively taken this great organization to a new and veritable mountaintop. One where hundreds upon hundreds of good souls from hundreds upon hundreds of different companies have, over these many years, given their all to both serve one another and myriad other entities, so as to build a better economy, better communities and better lives for thousands upon thousands.

Extending the Region’s Boundaries

As I closely examined the status of today’s membership, it also struck me that the reach of the Chamber geographically has also been dramatically extended – north, south, east and west. It’s one thing to grow in numbers, quite another to extend the geographic footprint and that has clearly been achieved.

To make a Chamber a Chamber takes committed lawyers, professors, innovators, engineers, planners, public affairs and public relations specialists, bankers, investors, hospitalists, educators, academics, builders, contractors, printers, designers, developers, doctors, counselors, realtors, therapists, great athletes and more. Communicating, collaborating, facilitating, energizing and Jim and his staff, no doubt, knows just who and when to call to drive it all.

When everything comes at you at the speed of light and more than ever more, it helps to have an organization like the Meadowlands Chamber along with you for the adventure, one that has, for 50 years, helped thousands upon thousands navigate through the storms and chart courses for success.

Richard Fritzky, Ph.D., is the longest standing CEO of the Meadowlands Chamber and the founder of numerous initiatives that still stand today. An Adjunct Faculty Professor at Seton Hall University, he is the New Jersey State Planning and Workforce Development Commissioner and Chairman of the NJ State Task Force on Adult Illiteracy and Gender Equity. He and his wife Maggie have 12 children and 22 grandchildren.