Soon after Jim Kirkos took the helm of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2002, he confronted the thorny issue of its troubled relations with the environmental community.
The two parties had been at odds for years over the proposed construction of a large mall in Carlstadt by Mills Corp., which the chamber believed would boost the economy and environmentalists saw as the destruction of valuable wetlands.
"There was a history of hatred. I said to my board, 'I want to find the areas we can agree on, because I think we will agree on more than we disagree with,'" says Kirkos, who believed the dispute, if unresolved, could hamper the chamber's efforts to grow and help the regional economy.
Kirkos had lunch with Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, a famously prickly environmentalist, who convinced the newly minted chamber president to take a boat tour of the Meadowlands. By the time it was over, Kirkos says, he "quite frankly had a life-changing experience," awed by the abundance of natural beauty, and both men were convinced that their organizations could work together.
The episode provides a window into the diplomacy, tenacity and energy that have helped Kirkos turn the chamber into one of the largest in the state, steering it through a turbulent decade in which the public image of the Meadowlands was transformed from that of a collection of warehouses and sports facilities to one of the hottest business regions in the nation.
With nearly 1,100 members, the chamber is now about four times as big as when Kirkos took over. It's become a vigorous proponent of the Meadowlands and surrounding area as a tourism destination, particularly for eco-tourism. And the organization's prestige and clout are about to grow dramatically as the region over the next two years becomes the focus of three – perhaps four – major events likely to draw the eyes, and visitors, of the world. They include World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.'s WrestleMania event in April 2013 in the MetLife stadium; the Formula 1 Grand Prix car race in Weehawken on the bank of the Hudson River in June 2013; and Super Bowl XLVIII, set for February 2014 in the stadium.
In addition, if all goes to plan, the $3.7 billion mall and entertainment complex known at the American Dream (formerly Xanadu) is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013 at the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
"Think about that. Every three or four months something is happening. I don't know if I'll be able to sleep in that time," says Kirkos, almost giddy with anticipation.
That lofty agenda was hardly conceivable when Kirkos took the helm of the chamber, and even more so when he grew up in the heart of the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The son of a bookkeeper and a Ford assembly line worker, Kirkos, 54, studied accounting at Fairleigh Dickinson and at the same time worked in a deli and liquor store for then-Lyndhurst Mayor Anthony Scardino.
The experience prompted Kirkos to leave college and start his own restaurant, and later corporate catering business, in Lyndhurst, which he ran for 20 years before selling it in 2001. A chamber board member, he then worked sporadically as a business consultant for the organization and jumped at the chance to run it when the job became vacant, knowing first-hand the chamber's impact.
"When I sold my business, almost 37 percent of my revenue came from chamber members," says Kirkos, who lives in Lyndhurst.
Early on, he focused on the nuts and bolts work of improving member services. He pushed to increase the chamber budget and expand its staff size so the organization could deliver business development services much needed by small to medium size members while advocating on "big picture" issues, such as regional development.
Carl Goldberg, who started an eight-year run as chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority soon after Kirkos became chamber CEO, says Kirkos clearly had a vision for the chamber and the Meadowlands early on.
"I was immediately struck by the level of commitment he had to redefining what the Meadowlands chamber could be, and, if it achieved its full potential, how effective it could be as an economic engine for the region," Goldberg says.
Timing, too, was fortuitous. Kirkos took the chamber's helm as the Meadowlands was undergoing a radical transformation, driven by several major projects that sought to turn the former collection of landfills into an entertainment and retail center. Among the projects was the now-dead ENCAP proposal, which promised to turn several landfills into golf courses, a hotel and condominiums, and Xanadu, the entertainment and retail center proposed by Mills Co. after it dropped the plan for a mall in Carlstadt.
In addition, the region was undergoing a boom in hotel construction, which boosted the number of hotel rooms in and around the Meadowlands from 4,000 to 10,000, and later on the Giants and Jets built a brand new stadium.
"I said, 'We have an opportunity here to reshape a component of the economy in the Meadowlands if we take a closer look at what this could really mean," Kirkos says. "We could become a great destination, separate and apart from New York City. Right now we are just the cheaper alternative to NYC. But if we get these destination assets, people are coming here for a different reason than they are now."
Kirkos says he was convinced of the chamber's need to respond by a series of meetings he attended in 2003 with sports authority officials as they mounted an ultimately unsuccessful effort to bring the 2008 Super Bowl to the Meadowlands. The discussions highlighted the lack of tourism infrastructure to cope with a sudden influx of visitors seeking accommodation, restaurants and things to do, Kirkos says.
In response, the chamber started the Meadowlands Liberty Convention and Business Bureau, which now promotes the area from the Hudson River waterfront to the Meadowlands, and provides tourism information and services. The chamber also holds an annual tourism trade conference and started a website, stayinthemeadowlands.com, through which tourists and business visitors can book hotel rooms in the region. Kirkos says the advertising-supported site books tens of thousands of hotel rooms a year and brings in about $175,000 annually to support the chamber's tourism marketing effort.
Through it all, Kirkos has built a reputation as an energetic, astute and dedicated advocate for business who has deftly steered the chamber through an ever-evolving political landscape, as successive New Jersey governors have sought to place their own imprint on the region.
"He has made it more relevant, he has given gravitas to it," says Emanuel Stern, president of Hartz Mountain Industries, which has developed property in the Meadowlands for four decades, and whose father was a founding member of the chamber.
Part of Kirkos' strength is his ability, and the chamber's, to focus on what's good for members and the local economy, and sidestep the politics, says Dennis DeMarco, a lobbyist and chamber board member.
"He can analyze an issue and he knows issues that support the mission of the chamber - he has an ability to sift through that and not get hung up in the weeds," says DeMarco.
Sheehan said that although he and Kirkos still have conflicting views, the chamber CEO is easily able to manage the inevitable tension between environmentalists and business.
"Jimmy listens. He doesn't put his hand up and say, 'Go away, I don't want to hear it," Sheehan says. "We can have serious conversations about issues. We have agreed to work together on the issues which we agree upon, and to not disagree about things in the same tone that we had years ago."
Five Things That Could Change Business in the Meadowlands
The owners of the massive retail and entertainment complex, Triple Five, expect it to attract about 1 million people a week after it opens in the fall of 2013. That's if it opens. Triple Five still have to nail down $1.8 billion in funding for the project to happen.
Bergen Community College Meadowlands Campus
Partially open at present, the campus is expected to finish renovations and have its new campus fully ready in December. The school is expected to accommodate 10,000 students, providing a well-trained workforce for local businesses.
Goya expands in Jersey City
The long-time Meadowlands-based company is mulling a plan to build a 600,000-square-foot headquarters and warehouse in Jersey City for $127 million, rather than move out of state. It would convert its present Secaucus HQ into a manufacturing operation.
Extended # 7 Subway
Still little more than a proposal, this would extend the New York City's # 7 subway line to Secaucus, providing a much-needed speedy and direct commuter connection from the Meadowlands to Manhattan.
Meadowlands 2040 Council
The chamber's C-suite level think tank, created to plan the regional economy for 2040, will release its latest white paper in the fall. Its focus will be on the economic impact and opportunities of the development of the sports complex.
summer 2012 (201) Executive
Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Kirkoshas a clear vision for the future
Written by Hugh Morley Photography by Anthony Bianciella