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Somerset business group gets $70K to support economic planning

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The Somerset County Business Partnership and county freeholders hosted a kickoff meeting this morning to announce a federal financial assistance award of $73,566 to fund the implementation of a regional comprehensive economic development strategy, or CEDS, developed by the partnership.

The assistance award is a matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Authority, and the partnership and freeholders raised $86,000 for the project.

CEDS will comprise county-wide planning, goal-setting and performance measurement to ensure jobs are created and retained within the region.

"This is a historic opportunity, because never before have we had a mechanism which was recognized by the federal government designed to get input from the private sector to help drive an economic agenda for a region," said Michael Kerwin, president of SCBP. "We want to produce projects we can rally around that will address our infrastructure needs based on what business needs in order to grow in future years."

"I think the outside world thinks Somerset County is pretty much the top of the heap, but the only way that we are going to stay there is if we continue business development — and the private sector is the engine that makes everything work, and we're not going to stay at the top if we don't do anything," said freeholder Peter Palmer. "While CEDS is a concept people think is centered on urban areas, we tend to take advantage of it to promote business development here."

Palmer added that businesses plan investment five to 15 years ahead of time, and by completing a CEDS, the county will be prepared for and attractive to those investments.

Kerwin said an early target for CEDS is transportation issues, particularly congestion, and "if we identify specific transportation investments we need to help mitigate that, that would be something we could rally around."

"As time goes on, the projects will fall out by themselves," said Mary Moody, CEDS project director, adding that all projects will be individually vetted against how they would impact the whole county's development mission.

Brian Reilly, executive director of the Municipal Land Use Center at The College of New Jersey, in Ewing, added that by having business and public input from around the region, many of the municipal "turf battles" will dissolve.

"What's unique about this in Somerset County is that the questions are being asked by the region, and all kinds of voices are being brought to the table to engage those questions," Reilly said. "It's the right time in our economic history … the business conditions of the past may not be what are going to drive the future, and the folks that know the best are among the private sector.

"Timing is everything, and the pieces the partnership has put into place to be able to come out of this great recession and now be asking these questions about the future — nobody else is at this point. They're still recognizing some of the impacts, and some people have the sense there may be changes — you're already set up and you're ready to set the agenda for the future."

Representatives from private businesses, nonprofits, public services, utilities, the business partnership and county freeholders comprise the governing committee. Sub-committees will be established to handle issues relating to one of five areas: energy, work force, infrastructure, tourism and municipal issues.

Submission of CEDS to the county as an element of the master plan is expected by February 2013.

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