As they reach the halfway point for creating a comprehensive economic development strategy, the Somerset County Business Partnership and county freeholders are targeting priority growth areas for economic development that align with the strategic plans of the county and state.
According to Michael Kerwin, president and CEO of the Somerset partnership, the CEDS project has received input from more than 200 businesses throughout the county since the first business outreach sessionon March 14. Kerwin said CEDS is poised to identity specific projects that will lead to job growth and private-sector investment within three to six months, including what he called "major employment flights along the interstates, which need our attention and support to reinvent them.
Kerwin said the partnership brought on Brian Reilly, executive director of the Municipal Land Use Center at The College of New Jersey, as a consultant and moderator for the three business outreach workshops, which broke off to form subcommittees of five to six people to come up with target areas for growth and investment. On March 30, the business partnership’s governing committee completed a similar exercise, and found its themes closely matched the business community’s top areas for private-sector growth, including business attraction, retention, incentives and space; streamlining regulation processes; work force education and training; transportation and transit; entrepreneurship; and energy. From the combined topics, the board came up with five vision statements that will provide the framework for an action plan.
“The themes we set out from the beginning have emerged, and what we’ve received is validation that we’re isolating the main issues and finding the right opportunities for growth,” Kerwin said.
According to John Maddocks, vice president of economic development for the Somerset partnership, the suggestions from the business community “paint a picture of where we want to be in the future.”
“The suggestions range from new financing mechanisms targeted at small businesses, to help with capital needs, to work force delivery initiatives,” Maddocks said. “But our focus is still narrow — to serve the needs of employers.”
According to Reilly, who was involved in the CEDS process for Cleveland, what differentiates Somerset’s initiative from other counties’ land use plans is that it aligns a private-sector vision with public-sector leadership, funding and strategic planning on the county, state and federal level. Reilly said a key component of the vision statements is transportation investments, which he said often are federally funded and highlight the importance of aligning the private sector with government.
“CEDS allow regions to attract and compete for federally funded projects,” Reilly said. “If everyone at every level … is aligned for this and asking for funding, they are more heard by the federal government. Somerset is more competitive with what it’s taking to Washington, and they’re a leg up on the competition (for federal funding) in the country.”
From his experience working with the county planning board and freeholders, Kerwin’s advice to other New Jersey communities that want to drive growth by connecting with the business community — like Cinnaminson — is to “connect the dots.”
“An individual town operating in isolation is limited in what they can achieve,” Kerwin said. “They need to align themselves with their community, county and the state. We could not do a comprehensive CEDS without the county’s plans. It’s what Jersey and businesses want to see.”