Kevin Riordan: A man, a plan - and a cabal?

"I would do anything I can to make it better," Alexander says of his borough. Says resident David McGee: "The mayor thinks he can do anything he wants."
"I would do anything I can to make it better," Alexander says of his borough. Says resident David McGee: "The mayor thinks he can do anything he wants."
Posted: January 30, 2011

Scott Alexander, the highly caffeinated mayor of Haddon Heights, flips open yet another binder of bullet points, benchmarks, and metrics about his Project Garnet.

The centerpiece of his signature undertaking will be a stylish development of 28 new single-family houses. They'll overlook the leafy little gorge that Kings Run cuts through Haddon Heights Park.

"I love Haddon Heights so much," Alexander declares, "I would do anything I can to make it better."

His neighbor and nemesis David McGee also loves the tree-lined town on the White Horse Pike. But he sees Project Garnet as the product of Alexander's less-than-credible calculations and machinations.

"The mayor," McGee says, "thinks he can do anything he wants."

On YouTube and Facebook, in local newspapers and at municipal meetings, the political and, alas, personal squabble has been grinding away for nearly two years. OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests, ethics complaints, libel suits, dueling door-to-door surveys . . . they're all in here.

Project Garnet will either wonderfully enrich or woefully encumber the Camden County borough, depending on whether one listens to the uber-enthusiastic Republican mayor or his equally passionate opponents.

Critics see Alexander as an "arrogant" purveyor of "propaganda" who believes he alone knows how best to run everything in town. To fans (including himself), the mayor is merely beset by nasty naysayers, some of them encouraged by Camden County Democrats aghast to see a Republican star rising in their backyard.

A star, by the way, whose wagon is famously hitched to that GOP supernova named Chris Christie.

"The governor has been here three times. He respects what we're doing. I respect what he's doing," says Alexander, a telegenic, self-described God-fearing father of four whose family has lived in town for more than a century.

A political neophyte when a property-tax revolt swept him into office in 2007, Alexander, 48, is contemplating a second four-year term. He's widely seen as intelligent, aggressive, and hardworking, and he's nothing if not confident.

"When I came in here, I didn't know what I was going to do, but it quickly became apparent that the borough needed to be run like a business," says the mayor, who favors jargon like "monetizing borough assets."

Project Garnet is an effort to do just that, primarily by transforming 7.3 acres - formerly home to the Public Works Department - into a tax-generating property.

A respected Medford developer, Bob Meyer Communities, bought the ground for $1.55 million in December. Meyer plans to use traditional design elements to knit the proposed neighborhood into the borough's handsome fabric.

While some in town would prefer that the site be kept open or used for recreation, others doubt the houses will sell at all. I think Meyer will find plenty of buyers.

"People want to live in Haddon Heights," says the mayor, noting that successive borough master plans have envisioned the sort of development he's making happen.

"Other mayors haven't necessarily been classically trained business guys who know engineering and marketing and all that stuff," he adds.

Supported by a 4-2 Republican majority on the Borough Council, Alexander serves part time and without pay.

The sole proprietor of a marketing firm, he no longer showcases his public office on his company website. This ill-advised practice raised plenty of eyebrows, including mine.

Critics such as Susan O'Neill contend the mayor simply bulldozes his way through a compliant council and bamboozles an inattentive electorate with his salesmanship.

As for the results of a public survey that Alexander cites as rationale for Project Garnet, O'Neill says, "I think he made them up."

The extent of public support for - or even awareness of - the project also concerns Stephen Berryhill, one of the Borough Council's Democrats.

A lawyer, the councilman says his own survey suggests most residents are opposed.

"But the fight is over," Berryhill says. "At this point, we need to make sure the project is done as right as possible."

He hopes Project Garnet succeeds.

As a resident of Haddon Heights, so do I.


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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