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Outreach to businesses changes blueprint of Somerset development plan

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As the Somerset County Business Partnership and county freeholders get to work drafting a plan to target areas for economic development, the head of the project said feedback from the private sector during the business outreach phase has shifted the focus.

"Our perspective had been based on a long period in the '80s and '90s that saw a lot of growth along our interstate highways. That rapid sprawl development was almost overwhelming and seen as a threat to our quality of life," said Michael Kerwin, president and CEO of the partnership. "But we're in a different world now, with rising office vacancy and corporate relocation."

According to Kerwin, the key industry sectors with potential for business retention and growth under the comprehensive economic development strategy, or CEDS, include advanced manufacturing, finance, technology, and pharmaceuticals and life sciences. But Kerwin said the county may lose its grip on those industries unless it enacts a plan to simplify regulatory procedures, effectively train its work force and retool vacant commercial sites.

Though the CEDS will align with the economic growth strategies of the county and state, Kerwin said the state's strategic plan in its present form targets investment in urban areas with major transportation networks, but "does not bear in mind we have large office complexes along our interstates that have served as an economic engine for the state for many years — and they need to be supported with state incentives, as well."

"Pharmaceutical relocation is an issue statewide, but we could bring something to the table to retain those companies by reinventing our space to form corporate centers for the industry … and looking at some ways to make it easier to get them than driving," Kerwin said. "It's not that we're against the rebirth of cities; it's just that we're pointing out we have these large complexes that we have to support to keep business in Somerset County."

Regardless of the state's willingness to provide aid, Kerwin said the CEDS project will undertake developing work force training programs that better fit employers' needs and building research ties between businesses and institutions of higher education. Those partnerships currently are limited to Raritan Valley Community College, even though 17 colleges are located within a 10-mile radius of Somerset County, Kerwin said.

"The main reason Allergen just moved into Bridgewater was because they knew about our educated work force, which has exceeded their original expectations. If we can get the resources to form a marketing team specific to Somerset County, we could tell even more businesses what we have to offer, and what we hope to offer through this project," Kerwin said. "We didn't have to promote ourselves in the past, but it's clear that we do now."

Kerwin said the partnership is on track to complete the first draft of the CEDS by December and submit it to the county as an element of the master plan by February 2013.

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