4 min read May 2022 — In an interview with Invest:, Commissioner Director of Middlesex County Ronald Rios discussed achievements over the last year and how the county expects to continue its path of sustainable growth through infrastructure improvements, advancing technology and investment into the community through training programs and art districts. Rios also shared the defining features of the county and how their Destination 2040 plan has them on course for a successful future.
What are some highlights as of recent for the county and what are your current priorities?
I became director in 2013 and one of my main focuses was our finances and bringing our debt down. We looked at ways to reduce the debt while not hurting programs and services. Since then, in 2022, we have grown our annual surplus fund to nearly $89 million, and we decreased our debt by $10 million despite the challenges of the pandemic. For 21 years in a row, we have been able to maintain an AAA bond rating, which helps us to do a lot of important infrastructure improvements including road, bridges, parks and more.
Through our investments in technology infrastructure, we had the ability to become virtual without missing a beat. That was possible because 10 years ago we made the decision that our finances had to be in order, reducing our debt of $800 million to $400 million over that time. Technology is the core platform that supports every office, allowing us to work better and smarter when serving the public and building private sector relationships.
We have great relationships with our federal partners, congressional delegation, the governor’s office, local municipalities, mayors and Middlesex County delegation, which all helps us to cut the red tape a bit and get priority projects completed. Investments in and relationships with our healthcare entities, investments in education and fostering a strong workforce are all critical to sustainable future growth.
What do you see as key industries or sectors providing opportunities for growth?
Four years ago we embarked on a rebranding strategy for Middlesex County and demonstrated that we can achieve ambitious objectives through collaboration. For example, we are key partners alongside Rutgers University, RWJBarnabas Health, Hackensack Meridian Health, NJEDA and DEVCO on the New Jersey Technology and Innovation Hub project located in the heart of New Brunswick.
The county is pursuing three industry sectors: life sciences, food innovation and autonomous technology. The Innovation Hub is bringing those types of industries and institutions to a location that highlights our ability to provide the talent necessary for success. We are bringing the best minds together to innovate and bring about new opportunities for the community and country.
We have also invested $25 million in RWJ with the Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center. With this facility we are going to be able to work with them within our county college, Middlesex College, and our vocational school system, to be rebranded as Middlesex County Magnet Schools this year – putting students next to doctors.
Of course, we also recognize the need for a balance in investment of quality of life, not only through investments such as in the new performing arts center in New Brunswick but also in communities throughout the county, whether that be Woodbridge or Carteret or any other. Quality of life investments are critical in attracting people to both live and work here. We want to ensure that we not only have the very best talent from our educational institutions but are also attracting the very best in the country.
In New Jersey we’ve had a “brain drain” where people would be educated here and go to work in other states. We’re actively working on retention strategies. It’s all about creating businesses, making nice places to live and providing recreational opportunities. We’ve invested in the arts and are continuing to do so, with our investment in the creation of the Metuchen Arts District being just one example. The expectation is that these investments will bring in large companies and industries that we are pursuing.
What is a unique way you’re bolstering workforce development in the county?
Four years ago we started SkillUp in Middlesex County where the workforce development office offers 4,500 online courses free of charge to county residents and businesses. It allows people to obtain skills and talents on their own time and virtually. We are also collaborating with education programs at colleges to build that future workforce.
What are some issues that are arising as the county grows?
As we attract new businesses and sustain those already existing we want to be sure we are building the necessary infrastructure that supports towns on an individual basis. Smaller businesses face the largest challenges, and mom-and-pop companies are critical to the fabric of who we are and our strategy. We want cooperation from mayors who are dealing with the residents to make sure we are doing what is best for the business community and the location.
Infrastructure to sustain the businesses being brought in is the reason one of the key industries being sought out is autonomous technology. Part of our economy is transportation, so finding the most efficient way to move people in and out of the city while maintaining safety is at the heart of our autonomous technology initiative.
What are your key areas of focus from an infrastructure standpoint?
We are looking at key thoroughfares and county connectors that connect 25 towns. We are also looking at new tech that can better address the flow of traffic and the connection points of federal and state highways. That requires investments in new infrastructure from roads as well as highways. A few years back we invested $20 million into the North Brunswick train station, which will alleviate regional traffic. We’ve partnered with NJTransit on that project, which is on the busy Northeast corridor. That will be a real game-changer for Middlesex County.
What are the defining features of Middlesex county that make it a good place to do business?
Middlesex county is central New Jersey. To go anywhere you have to go through us, and we are flourishing with a lot of activity in terms of construction and redevelopment. The investment the county has made into its strategic vision, Destination 2040, a 20-year plan that relates to what we do every year leading up to 2040, is also unique. That is an advantage that serves as the foundation to the relationships and initiatives that drive the economic growth of the area and surrounding counties. This master economic roadmap ensures that Middlesex County is the best place to live, work and play both now and for future generations.
What is your outlook for the next few years?
The Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center will be completed in the next couple of years, which will serve as a tremendous asset to our local colleges and the Middlesex County Magnet Schools. When it comes to technology, we can’t just sit idle and expect things to happen, we have to be proactive. We are seeing how important technology is, and if we don’t take advantage of new software, we won’t reach the next level. Technology is as critical as infrastructure for government agencies in driving economic growth. On the arts front, smaller towns are wanting to get involved and that’s exciting given the superb quality of life we’re aiming to foster countywide.
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