Writer: Max Crampton-Thoams
2 min read May 2021 — South Jersey is gearing up for an economic recovery post-COVID that includes greater business diversification. In an interview with Invest:, Lauren Moore, President of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance, lays out the blueprint to achieve just that.
What were the significant steps taken by Atlantic County Economic Alliance over the past year to boost the economy?
We are a private nonprofit, 501(c)(3) and most of our board are members of the private sector, who expect results and expect us to move at the speed of business. Our mission boils down to diversifying the economy.
Our push for diversification was knocked off course in the spring of 2020 as the Covid pandemic took hold and we spent most of our time providing emergency assistance to local businesses.
But oddly enough, Covid reinforced our need to continue working more than ever to diversify the Atlantic County economy. Our county was among the hardest hit in the country in terms of unemployment because most local jobs are related to hospitality and tourism, which all but closed completely during Covid.
So, we got very creative. We put together a strategy to attract companies here who are working on technologies to reopen the economy.
We pushed our Smart Airport Testbed at Atlantic City International Airport as a perfect laboratory to help companies evaluate Covid fighting technology.
We are working very closely with the offshore wind industry, which is about to build massive new energy infrastructure off the coast of Atlantic City.
We saw disruption to our supply chain caused by the pandemic and recognized the importance and opportunity to grow eCommerce in our region. So, we are asking the State of New Jersey, which manages Atlantic City Airport, and the federal government, to help us build our air cargo infrastructure and attract permanent, new jobs to Atlantic County.
Our rising profile also helped us get invited by the Murphy Administration to participate on one of the Governor’s key Economic Recovery Committees formed to help us restart the New Jersey economy post-Covid.
While this was going on, we began implementing our $1.7 million, three-year i6 Challenge grant we won from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. We are partnered on this grant with the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), the nation’s premier non-profit devoted to the advancement of the aerospace industry.
This grant is allowing us to build the administrative infrastructure here to attract innovation, research and development and create New Jersey’s first aviation accelerator. We have already graduated our first cohort of eight companies, which were all involved in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)-related technology.
Clearly, the federal government, which awarded us the $1.7 million, was impressed with our grant application, our partnership with NIA, and the strong relationship we developed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
We have an institutional asset that does not exist anywhere else in South Jersey, New Jersey, the East Coast, the United States or the world: the William J. Hughes Technical Center. All of the aviation research and development and review of approval of every nut and bolt that goes into an airplane has to happen at the FAA.
Building productive relationships and being the connective tissue linking companies with resources and partners to achieve success is at our core.
This also means linking companies with the academic partners we have brought on board including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Stockton University, Rowan University, Atlantic Cape Community College, and local high schools.
Fortunately, our efforts seem to be paying off. We are now seeing new private sector investment in the area. Even Moody’s and Standard and Poors noticed our efforts when they called out our great work in a recent bond rating of Atlantic County. Getting this validation of our approach was very gratifying.
How are you working to establish your smart airport testbed as a magnet for industry players?
Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI), which is a $4.2 billion aerospace company, the Lockheed Martin of Israel, reached out to us to capitalize on our smart airport testbed and enter a research collaboration agreement with us toward safe air travel.
Our aviation innovation hub is much larger and broader than the NARTP. Despite Covid, we were able to work with our elected officials here to create an aviation district as part of the incentive package that the governor signed on Jan. 7, 2021. There is no other aviation district in the state but ours. The definition of that aviation district gives us a special set of incentives that includes the FAA grounds — SJTA, the airport, and one mile off the boundary of all the property owned by the FAA and SJTA. That is 5,000 acres in the donut hole and then one mile off of it. Moreover, our aviation district is included as a federal Opportunity Zone. We have eight of them in Atlantic County and we have private sector investors coming in.
What other industries are the up-and-comers within Atlantic County?
With cannabis now legal in New Jersey, we are getting quite a bit of interest from growers. We have 23 towns and we surveyed them to determine where the activity makes the most sense. Several municipalities are interested in hosting facilities, and we have been showing quite a few sites. We are close to executing some deals to build 200,000 square feet of related facilities.
How are you coordinating with higher education institutions on workforce development efforts?
It is a proven fact that businesses follow the workforce. They go where the educated workers are. Incentive packages are part of the conversation, but the bottom line is knowing whether or not a company is going to find the educated workforce and the talent that it needs to be successful with their business model.
Workforce development is something that we are keenly focused on. The Atlantic County Workforce Development Board recently hired a liaison to connect with Atlantic County’s business community to better understand training needs and gaps. The goal is to get the pulse of workforce development needs across the county for business retention and growth purposes.
We are also working with Atlantic County Community College, Stockton University, Rowan University, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology, and we brought in Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, to support the development of the aviation sector.
We also had a very productive meeting with all of the high school superintendents to present our economic development strategy to highlight what industries will create future jobs in our region.
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