VINELAND — The city’s new mayor once bench-pressed 450 pounds.
Now, Anthony Fanucci, 44, has more weight on his shoulders.
The tall windows on his sixth-floor City Hall office look down directly on Landis Avenue, where decades-old florists and shoe shops sit alongside vacant storefronts and the once-popular, now-closed Landis Marketplace.
“Every property that’s vacant right now is significant, in one way, shape or form. (The Landis Marketplace) happens to be in the heart of downtown, so it’s a focal point for a lot of people,” Fanucci said.
South Jersey’s economy has become notoriously tender with Atlantic City’s woes, but Vineland faces particular challenges. One of the city’s most iconic businesses, a Progresso plant, is closing this year and costing more than 300 jobs. Meanwhile, the value of taxable land has dropped more than $100 million in the past two years to $3.85 billion, which Fanucci said was tied to tax appeals.
This puts even more pressure on bringing in businesses and industries that can fill vacant buildings, move or expand in Vineland, and bring jobs, money and ratables. Commercial and industrial properties account for nearly one-third of the tax base.
Fanucci, who owns A.R. Fanucci Insurance and A.R. Fanucci Real Estate in the city, said his goal is to run the city more like a business, to improve customer service and communications with companies.
One of the major parts of that is a plan underway to create a fiber-optic network for high-speed internet. Work has already started and continues — in some cases — when roads crews are digging up pavement anyway and are being installed by city workers.
“My goal is to become more of a fast city. … We are going to have a competitive advantage,” he said.
Efforts like this are taking place in some other towns in the country, including in Massachusetts, where state money is helping six towns construct networks.
The mayor’s office said there is no budgeted cost for fiber optics, and existing employees are doing work as part of daily schedules.
“At the end of the day, we’ll know in less than four years if our plans are coming to fruition and if we’re making a true difference here,” he said. “If they don’t, I don’t need anyone else to tell me it’s time to go.”
Before he was mayor
With a population of 60,818, Vineland has the most residents among municipalities in the region. At 68 square miles, it has the largest land mass in the state, a combination of urban, industrial and rural farmland.
Fanucci grew up on Landis Avenue in Vineland, where his parents were in business — his mother in real estate, his father an Allstate agent.
At St. Augustine Prep, he played football, wrestling and threw the shotput and javelin for the track team.
An amateur powerlifter in his younger days training under former Assemblyman and St. Augustine strength coach Frank Blee, Fanucci squatted 575 pounds in a competition.
“Most powerlifters get into the sport because they’re strong, and they realize if they apply proper training principles and techniques they flourish in the sport. And that was the case with Anthony,” said Blee, 58, of Mullica Township.
Fanucci volunteered on some of Blee’s campaigns for state Assembly. “I knew he’d be a leader in the community, in elected life or volunteering with community groups and nonprofits,” Blee said.
After following politics and having friends in politics, Fanucci said he decided to run for the city school board in 2006 and won a three-year term.
“I was surprised at the time of how slow things go. In business, you can stroke a pen and make things happen. In government, there are significantly different procedures — something that’s good and something that’s not that good.”
“It really gives you a lesson in planning. You can’t just magically make something happen,” he said.
He served two terms on the school board, ran for City Council and took office in January 2013. As City Council president, he won a three-way race for mayor in November 2016 and took office in January along with a slate of five council members.
Fanucci said he is still involved in his business, where he has 11 full-time and part-time employees, even as he said he took on the mayor’s role full time.
One of the actions that sparked an early controversy was when the mayor and council members proposed to double their salaries by the next year.
The action was approved. The mayor’s salary went from $30,000 to $45,000 this year and will rise to $60,000 in 2018. City Council’s went from $5,000 to $7,500 this year and to $10,000 next year.
Fanucci said he agreed to the salary hike by forgoing health, medical and prescription drug benefits, which he said generally cost about $30,000.