Writer: Joshua Andino
6 min read April 2022— As Americans move on from the pandemic, conversations have shifted from the virus back to the economy. Counties, economic development offices and business associations are working to bring businesses back to and beyond pre-pandemic levels of economic activity. Invest: spoke to leaders in New Jersey about how they’re looking to march forward and capture opportunities.
What are your priorities in the changing economic landscape?
Michele Siekerka, President & CEO, New Jersey Business & Industry Association
Our small businesses need a lot of help. Some bills to support them made it into the legislative arena, but the government vetoed them. We are crunching to understand why. Tax credits for expenses were encouraged as a result of COVID. We are highly concerned about this because we have had some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, despite having a 1-to-1 job ratio. Businesses were forced to put their workforce on unemployment due to shutdown orders. Now, they are being asked to replenish the fund that paid the unemployment during that time through nearly a $1 billion tax hike over three years.
On the other hand, we have been working with the federal delegation to get our J-1 Visa program back where it needs to be. Last year we were instrumental in loosening the rules around teen workers so they could fill up some of the gaps in the tourism industry. Now, with parental permission, students can work longer hours and make more money. All our work is focused on bringing resources to help businesses.
Marc Saluk, Director of Economic Development & Tourism, Hunterdon County
Right now, with remote work becoming a new model, we have the ability to become a home-based business mecca. For example, there is a very successful home-based IT company in Hunterdon that employs about 30 people and whose product is used by many Fortune 500 companies. There are enough examples that we know home-based business can represent significant growth that does not require new construction and still contributes very strongly to the economy. This will also attract many knowledge workers to the area and lead to potential spin-off opportunities. In fact, we have examples of IT companies that have spun out of the home and into offices. That is a good feeder system for the existing office stock we have.
We are also focused on growth in industries that are traditional to Hunterdon County, which are agriculture-related, and agritourism in particular. Later this year, we will be launching a dedicated Hunterdon County Tourism Partnership effort to put extensive resources into marketing the county as a tourism destination. The work on making several communities more attractive to home-based businesses is a natural extension of that because tourists who like it enough here become residents. In just the past five years, we have halted the population decline here and our average age has dropped. We feel these efforts will continue to feed those trends positively while continuing to add highly skilled people to the workforce. We are going to continue to grow light-footprint industries, such as tech and IT, which have the appropriate infrastructure for a bucolic rural community.
Shanel Robinson, Commissioner Director, Somerset County
We had almost a $500 million loss in tourism, but right now we are looking at the promotion of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2026. We have developed a new Preservation Plan which contains an update of our Open Space and Recreation Master Plan, our Farmland Preservation Plan, and a new Historic Preservation Master Plan. We think this is the first time a combined master plan has been created in New Jersey and maybe the country.
One of the key themes throughout the Preservation Plan is that tourism and economic development go together. We leverage the investments the commissioners are making to preserve open space, farmland and historic resources and turn them into economic development opportunities, which are woven into our day-to-day operations.
What are the key draws to the region for businesses?
I believe it is important to know our challenges to find opportunities and fix them. I’m bullish in New Jersey. I’m a Jersey girl through and through. This is a great place to start a business and raise a family. Why is that? We have extraordinary assets here. We are in the center of the northeast corridor, right between Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. We have incredible transportation and can get anywhere in a couple of hours. We can reach a couple of million people within a few hours. We have Newark Liberty International Airport which allows people to have easy access to the region. We have a well-educated workforce. We are No. 1 on the K-12. However, we also encounter the highest out-migration among 18 to 34-year-olds. We must make our post-secondary education more attractive and affordable to keep our students here.
Those are some of our strong assets, location, transportation, logistics and our students. We have a lot to offer. We have great neighborhoods, communities, the shore and 140 miles of pristine beach.
The sheer education and skill level of the workforce absolutely stands out here. The other strength is the location. The world class metro-markets of New York and Philadelphia are easily accessible from Hunterdon, and yet the county itself allows you to live in a beautiful, less-congested environment that gets high marks for quality of life. Additionally, the Jersey Shore and the mountains are all within an hour, so really anything needed for an individual’s business and personal needs is at your fingertips. And because of our size, we have a team ready to work with businesses to get that focus you might not get in larger markets. For New Jersey, housing here also is still comparatively affordable, especially apartment rates.
With the infrastructure package passed at the federal level, we’re looking at infrastructure and transportation in support of our retail, educational, and technological industries. We are asking ourselves how we can help businesses, small or large, maintain their level of service and product line that they need to deliver for further economic growth. We also have monies that were given as part of the federal recovery funding, so we plan on boosting the educational sector.
What is your outlook?
I think slow and steady wins the race. We have more financial assets in the state right now than ever. We have access to significant federal funds, and we’ve got very well-performing revenue thanks to our corporate business and sales tax. We must properly utilize this revenue and invest it in a one-time opportunity such as workforce, infrastructure or technology.
COVID has changed us and the way we work forever. The idea of connectivity now is something that New Jersey can offer. We have amenities that give our residents a better quality and life than in most states. You have access to the city, the shore and the entertainment. The ethnic diversity of the state is a treasure that further enhances the quality of life and opportunities.
Our manufacturers continue to thrive and hire, and our Main Street businesses remain close to full occupancy. Our agritourism and farmers have been doing terrific as more people are looking for outdoor activities year-round. Vineyards had record years. I expect those trends to continue because these businesses have done a good job of locking in those opportunities for the long term. The professional sector continues to thrive, and our biotech and life sciences industry has grown in the last two years.
Overall, the economy looks good and it appears that we have weathered the pandemic well. Most importantly, leadership her across the board is being pro-active about capitalizing on all the current opportunities before us.
We are invested in our Somerset County Business Partnership, the overarching business organization for the county, to better understand what our business communities need. Since Hurricane Ida hit our area, we have had to make sure that we are prepared for climate change. We have to be prepared to make sure that our residents are getting all they need and businesses are getting a return on their investment. This work is in conjunction with each of our municipalities, the state of New Jersey, our federal delegation, and our state legislators.
Another of our priorities is getting these resources and opportunities to diverse populations and not leave anyone behind. We view our growing diversity as a competitive advantage and an asset that we can highlight to investors and the world. Additionally, we are looking at sustainability and setting up our workforce for those new jobs in the green industry. There is also additional funding for grants at the local level for vocational schools to create additional training opportunities for green economy jobs in construction, technology and engineering.
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