The Public-Private Partnership as a “Catalyst” to Community Renewal

Excerpt from article by Eric Ascalon, VP Development, Catalyst Experiential as featured in the New Jersey Conference of Mayors Magazine 

familyI grew up in Cherry Hill, a one-time agricultural community that helped supply the nearby Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden with produce. As a kid in the 1970s, my suburban township boasted ten family farms, the wonderful “Cherry Blossom Parade” each spring, and a true sense of community year-round. Today, only one farm remains, the parade is no more, and it is difficult to discern where the Township ends and its neighboring municipalities begin.

As suburbs in America have rapidly expanded over the past half-century, it is easy to get lost in a “sea of sameness”. Lines between our towns have blurred, and commercial corridors from coast-to-coast feature a virtually identical litany of chain retailers and restaurants. Perhaps this phenomenon is no more evident than in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state. Though our state provides an excellent quality of life and boundless opportunities, I believe the citizens of our 565 municipalities are longing for a renewed sense of local community. While many of our cities and towns have done a phenomenal job towards achieving this through Main Street and neighborhood revitalizations and redevelopment, there remains much work to do.

As local elected officials in the Garden State work towards rehabilitating a sense of community identity, there are also ever-greater demands to rehabilitate and expand infrastructure, and to enhance recreational and cultural opportunities for constituents. People are demanding more from local government, but there is no tolerance for tax increases to cover the costs—especially in the midst of an unprecedented property tax crisis. How does a New Jersey township official serve the community in such a complex environment?

Creative, outside-the-box thinking is a necessity to succeed in local governance today. A new breed of innovative public-private partnerships is emerging to assist in the fulfillment of needs and fill budget gaps. Catalyst Experiential is a pioneer in this realm.

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Our process starts with understanding the need of a particular municipality, and then collaborating with public officials to customize a solution to meet the distinct needs of the community as well as ensure

that completed designs reflect the local aesthetic.  Catalyst installations cost municipalities and their taxpayers nothing.  Cities and towns benefit from the shared use of the communications platform, which enables them to notify constituents about local events and activities, or to keep them up-to-date in the event of emergencies.

The Catalyst vision began over a decade ago. We were talking with a suburban township about an installation, and they suggested that if we could get rid of an abandoned gas station, and transform that blight into something of value, they would be very interested. We replaced the gas station with our first Monument, an architecturally relevant gateway with dry-stacked stone, landscaping that would make an arboretum jealous, and 40 giant arborvitaes. It was a hit with the community, and we haven’t looked back since. Catalyst began to fundamentally rethink the concept of the sign, and endeavored to explore deeper intrinsic needs within communities so that the sign itself becomes a secondary use. Today, aesthetics and community purpose drive all Catalyst projects.

After a long stint away for my hometown, I returned to Cherry Hill when it came time to start a family. Lured back by its proximity to recreational and cultural opportunities, and the quality of the schools that I once attended, for me it was a logical choice. Though the Township has changed considerably, at its core, it still feels like home. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise three children within its borders. For Cherry Hill – as with many of New Jersey’s suburbs – though the farms are nearly gone; and the parades are few and far between; the desire to renew the hometown spirit persists. That desire led me to Catalyst, where I take pride that we can help spark that renewal.


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