By Ron Leir
Making music, manufacturing and meeting the vice president were themes that resounded for Kearny’s chief executive during a trip to the nation’s capital.
Mayor Alberto Santos was among the participants in the 82nd annual winter U.S. Conference of Mayors, held Jan. 22-24, in Washington, D.C., where municipal leaders learn how federal policies or grant programs may impact their communities.
Topping the list of high profile items on the agenda for the winter meeting, Santos said, were panel discussions on combating poverty in the big cities and, in particular, improving the graduation rate for low-income kids in urban schools. On that topic,newly-elected New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio talked about his plan to provide universal pre-school for the city’s public school system.
If Santos picked up any tips for helping Kearny’s school system upgrade its testing profile – a goal that Superintendent- on-leave Frank Ferraro has underscored – he didn’t say.
But some other notions about what cities can do to improve the quality of life for its residents and businesses attracted the mayor’s attention, one of those being a pitch that was made during a panel session on kick-starting America’s sagging manufacturing base.
A federal initiative known as IMCP – Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership – promotes links between the government and the private sector by awarding competitive grants, through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, to communities for site development and job training leading to new and/or expanded manufacturing clusters that would employ skilled labor. Last year, the feds gave out 26 grants, including one to Rutgers University to develop technology to strengthen the food industry.
This year, the U.S. Commerce Department has allocated $1.3 billion for 12 projects nationwide and has set March 14 as the submission deadline for funding applications.
“Our South Kearny industrial area could be a good candidate for such a grant,” Santos said. “While the area has been primarily a warehousing/distribution district, there is still some manufacturing, such as chemicals, that goes on.”
Santos said he planned to contact the South Kearny Industrial Association to gauge whether there would be interest among its members to seek funding.
Another panel on the arts scene highlighted how Madison, Wisc., adapted a Parisian concept called “Make Music” by creating a “One Solstice” festival where residents were encouraged to meet their neighbors by playing an instrument at various venues on the longest day of the year.
“The key is, ‘do it yourself,’ ’’ the mayor said. “It’s not something where everyone is instructed to play a classical piece of music, for example. Each person picks his or her own selection to play as a way of introducing themselves to the community.”
If Kearny chose to try the experiment, Santos said the town would provide a single location to host the event and a website where people could go to get more information about how it plays out.
“We could start it out at the Kearny Public Library Community Garden, when that project is completed, with time slots allotted for each performer,” he said.
An event like that could be instrumental in “generating community unity,” the mayor suggested.
Santos said he planned to contact Gerry Ficeto, board president of W.H.A.T. (West Hudson Arts & Theater Co.) in Kearny, among others, to discuss the concept in more detail.
During a break in the conference, Santos and his colleagues toured the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which houses White House staff offices, where they met Vice President Joe Biden and sub-Cabinet officials who briefed the mayors on such matters as types of federal funding programs available and revised FEMA flood zone mappings.
Unfortunately, President Obama apparently had other obligations at the time and wasn’t available for a meet-and- greet.
Santos said he took Amtrak to D.C. and back. “I paid for my fare and my hotel room,” he said, while the town picked up the conference registration fee.