By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
BRIDGETON — When Mayor Albert Kelly extends his hand in greeting other public officials, he makes sure he says that he is from the “great city of Bridgeton.”
Kelly said in that phrase, he is sending a message.
“I do that because I want the people who I engage and the people living here to see that I see potential and I see greatness in our city,” the Bridgeton native, two-term mayor and former city councilman said. “I want people to understand that, too, and I want them to have the same positive outlook that I have.
“So if I got to Trenton, I will announce myself as the mayor of the great city,” he continued. “If I go to Washington, I’ll announce myself as the mayor of the great city. If I cannot be positive about my city and see greatness, how can I ask someone else to?”
In turn, Bridgeton has responded to Kelly’s upbeat message about Bridgeton, Cumberland’s county seat. He was elected as mayor in 2010 with 76 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2014 and 2018 unopposed.
Bridgeton is a “minority-majority” city, with Latinos making up 51.3 percent of its residents, African-Americans 29 percent and Whites 16 percent of its population of roughly 24,900, according to Data USA.
Kelly, the founder and chief executive officer of the social service nonprofit Gateway Community Action Partnership, Inc., said he has always considered himself the mayor for all of Bridgeton and not a leader of one group or another.
“I want my community to be proud of me because I represent the entire community,” Kelly said. “I’m African-American male and the first African-American male to be elected the mayor of this city. I wanted to be there for the positive things and for the entire community.
“Many people I believe thought I was just going to be the mayor of the African-Americans here in the city and ignore the other issues throughout this community, but that’s not true, and I know they know I represent the entire city. I was elected to represent the entire city no matter if you live on the west side, east side, north side or south side. So it’s important to me to do my best and to be my best,” he added.
In 2017, Kelly served as president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, where he worked with other municipal leaders from around the state.
“I met with the different cabinet officials at that time one on one, share the issues that are important to cities and to represent all 500 plus municipalities,” Kelly said. “That was something I never dreamt of doing when I was first elected, but I got involved because the answers don’t always come to me. I’ve got to go out and find the answers to problems that we’re facing here.”
Since November 2017, Kelly has served as president of the 32-member New Jersey Urban Mayors Association, which is housed at Thomas Edison State University. The organization is works with state and federal lawmakers and officials to develop effective public policy measures that benefit the New Jersey’s urban centers and help lawmakers understand how public policy affects New Jersey’s cities and municipalities.
“At such a critical time in New Jersey and in the country, our unified voice will serve as a means to ensure the best possible outcomes for our communities,” Kelly urged in an edition of the Urban Mayors Press, produced by the association.
A proud graduate of Bridgeton High School, Kelly earned his degree from Trenton State College (College of New Jersey) and has worked in the state and municipal court system. He returned home and started Gateway Community Action Partnership in Bridgeton in 1984.
The agency, which assist 56,000 low to moderate income people with a variety of social services has become of the largest in New Jersey, starting with a handful of workers to hundreds. Gateway Community today as an annual budget of $60 million and covers Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Mercer, Salem counties in New Jersey and Germantown in Pennsylvania.
“I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish growing from agency of 11 employees to now over 750 employees,” Kelly said. “The programs that we’ve been able to put together and to serve the community, Head Start, daycare, WIC, a mobile dental lab, heating assistance, weatherization.
“These are all programs that would benefit the community in some form or fashion. I’m so happy to be able to offer this not only to Bridgeton, but we’re in seven different counties here in Southern New Jersey, plus we have a Head Start center in Philadelphia.
Kelly said he has a “fantastic staff” and he has hired “people who are smarter than myself” in an effort to bring them together to serve their community.
“And same thing with weatherization and all the other programs, and the staff that I hired are top notch,” Kelly said. “What I would like to do in the future I’m looking how can we open up a low income credit union for our residents here in South Jersey, so that we can teach people about finances, that we can work with people. Banks usually do not like to give small loans, thousand, $2,000.”
With that success, Kelly said at one time he was curious to see who would be interested in his skills in the open market. He reach out to various leadership job opportunities in the 1990s and ended up being a finalist for three high-profile nonprofits.
“I had interviews in California, Washington and Georgia,” Kelly said. “All three positions pay for my travel to come interview. Two of them were a national job. The one Georgia was for national Habitat for Humanity. In Washington, it was for the national office of Community Action. The California position was a similar job of which I have now.
“As you can see, I did not accept any job at all three markets because someone else was hired, but I was happy to be a finalist. It showed that out of the thousands of resumes or hundreds of resumes that were submitted for the national positions I was one of the three top. I took that as meaning that God wanted me to stay here in Bridgeton,” he added.
Kelly said while he enjoys his job as Bridgeton’s mayor, being the political leader of a small town does come with its challenges â€“ such as being stopped on the street whenever and wherever by your constituents.
“Yes, sometimes it’s inconvenient,” Kelly said with a laugh. “You might be in a restaurant or talking to some people and they’ll come in. People will come in and feel so comfortable with me that they’ll start telling me about the needs that they have.
“Sometimes I feel kind of put upon, but I remember I’ve got to put myself in their shoes. It’s an opportunity for them to tell the chief, the executive officer of Gateway and the City of Bridgeton their needs and they might not have that chance again. So they seize upon that and share with me their needs, their wants and how can the city or Gateway take care of their problems.”
Kelly highlighted some $250 million of investments being made in Bridgeton as part of his work with city council and officials. One includes turning an old landfill, once dubbed as “Mount Trash-more” and turning into a beautiful park that will over the city.
“I’m happy with that, because I believe people are buying in that Bridgeton is open for business, that crime is going down and Bridgeton is a good place to live and to work and to play,” Kelly said. “Bridgeton had gotten a bad reputation but we are turning that around.
“(The landfill) was becoming an eyesore. So one thing I wanted to do was to cap it so that we can utilize it for recreation, biking and hiking. It sits on 35 acres and about 65-feet high. I’m looking forward to opening that so people can have a panoramic view of the city and view nature, because it’s right next to the river. I can’t wait because I’m going to start kayaking in that river as soon as the weather breaks.”
Kelly said the city is looking into doing a solar shield on part of the property so that it can provide electricity for the city and save money.
“Gov. (Phil) Murphy signed a new program called ‘Community Solar,” in which we can be the solar provider to low-income individuals, household. A lot of people cannot afford to have solar on their house or in their yard.
“Through this new statewide program, we’ll be able to be the sole provider for these households. That’s something that’s unique and something that’s going to beneficial,” he continued.
Kelly is also involved with the Greater Bridgeton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Cumberland County Improvement Authority, Minor Adjustments Re-Entry Program, Allegheny East Conference of Seventh Day Adventist Churches, Cumberland County Empowerment Zone, Code Blue and Homeless Shelter Team, Inspira Health Network, Bridgeton Christian Ministerium, among other organizations.
Whether making a different in Bridgeton, or statewide, Kelly has shown his commitment to people where he has grown up with.