Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read September 2021 — As a neighbor to New York City, Somerset County is an attractive area to relocate to and expand businesses. President and CEO Chris Edwards of the Somerset County Business Partnership spoke with Invest: about the emerging film industry in the county, the growth in life sciences and the various projects underway that are being managed by a growing, educated workforce.
What differentiates Somerset County?
We’re the heart of New Jersey and the Northeast corridor. Forty percent of the nation’s population is within a tank of gas from Somerset County. It’s a suburban county with rich farmland and the ability to hike in the mountains. People have access to train stations connected to New York City and Philadelphia. From a work-lifestyle standpoint, what held us back were the difficult commutes between home and work in New Jersey and New York. That has begun to dissolve. We’re beginning to see the shift from urban to suburban. Our boroughs near train lines have seen an increase in population as many people look for walkability and accessibility to train stations for work. You also have a short drive to the Jersey Shore. We’re in the middle of all the action in North Jersey.
Which projects were recently completed or are underway in the county?
In Downtown Somerville, there are multiple projects that have flourished in the last 10 to 15 years. We’re beginning to reap the benefits of the work that has been done to revive Downtown Somerville. Years ago, for example, a road was closed off to create a pedestrian plaza called Division Street. Now, people can eat outside and visit multiple businesses that are bustling on the weekends. Business apartment buildings are becoming popular, where the train station and Division Street meet.
There are several projects regarding a retail expansion on Route 22 from Bridgewater to North Plainfield that are occurring. A project was recently completed in Watchung with a Cinemark movie theater and a few other retailers.
Which industries are you hoping to attract?
We hope many companies in the life sciences that want to do business with household names will look to our office space to conduct business. Moreover, three or four hotels in Bridgewater alone are expecting to experience growth in the next two to three years. We’re primarily known as a business hospitality destination. In 2019, 70% of our hospitality dollars were fueled by business travel. We’ve had to rebrand our tourism marketing, focusing on couples, individuals and families. I’m hopeful that other tourism amenities emerge, giving people reasons to come here outside of business travel.
Also, the Somerset County Commissioners along with the Somerset County Business Partnership launched a film commission in June 2021. We think it’s time for the county to get on the map, especially as it relates to the beauty and diversity of our landscape. It’s another reason why we’re excited for the future. We believe that there’s a real opportunity to retrieve lost business dollars by engaging with the film industry.
How does business travel post-pandemic compare to pre-pandemic levels?
Somerset County experienced a 51% loss in our hospitality industry. We moved from a $1.2 billion industry to $600 million, which is predominantly due to the loss of business travel. We have yet to receive data for 2021 but from conversations with local businesses, we’re beginning to see an uptick in the industry. We expect our 2021 numbers to be between 2020 and what they have been in previous years.
How would you describe Somerset County’s workforce?
Somerset County has one of the most highly educated workforces in the country. We often complete projects with some of the best colleges in the whole country: Raritan Valley Community College, Princeton University and Rutgers University. We also have a world class vo-tech and some of the best public schools in the country. There’s an opportunity in the post-pandemic world where many students wanting to remain near home or to their alma mater will fulfill the workforce needs of the businesses in the region. We’re well positioned to find talent and fuel the demand from businesses.
How are you investing into the county’s infrastructure?
Our county commissioners have done a great job in engaging with the Murphy and Biden administrations to ensure that money is being coordinated properly. We want to do the right things for the Somerset County taxpayer. Most of the money that’s been spent has gone toward ensuring that older infrastructure is up to par as we continue to expand and evolve. We often advocate for a gateway tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York City. If the gateway tunnel was to be completed, it would simplify transit and make it more effective. It’s only going to be more of an economic boom for our area as transit infrastructure improves.
What is your outlook for Somerset County?
Our educated workforce is able to match the needs of what we believe will soon be a post-pandemic workforce and economy. Since companies can work remotely, employment opportunities will open up for companies in New York City and Philadelphia that will look to hire people from the county. They’ll find that Somerset County is the perfect spot to call home. We’re launching a website called “WhySomersetNJ.org” which will delve into why Somerset County is uniquely positioned to be the home of your business.
Moreover, the region is becoming more diverse with each passing day. Asian-Indians comprise nearly 20% of the total population while Hispanics comprise just below 10%. The growing diversity has been an unbelievable business opportunity as we attract larger audiences. We want to ensure that existing companies can sell to a more diverse audience while attracting potential clients and workforce. It becomes more marketable from a talent perspective. We embrace our growing diversity and view it as a strength as we look at a post-pandemic world.
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