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So what's the plan? Businesses await word

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The unveiling of Gov. Chris Christie's new blueprint for economic growth was quickly hailed by business leaders around the state, who touted its calls for public-private partnerships and bolstering the sectors that already are the lifeblood of New Jersey.

But that was more than two years ago.

The document, officially dubbed the State Strategic Plan, has seemed to be in limbo since November 2012, when a commission tabled a vote to adopt its final version. But as Christie prepares to begin a second term, stakeholders hope the plan will return to the forefront and find its way to the finish line.

"The state was really preoccupied with rebuilding after Sandy — and for good reason," said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a planning advocacy group. "And then it was the campaign season, which is a difficult time to come out with new initiatives."

But "now that things are settling down … we're hoping that this thing is ready to go," Sturm said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of State, which oversees the Office of Planning Advocacy, did not respond to questions about the status of the effort.

The state plan, which would revise a framework adopted in 2001, aims to guide development while protecting environmentally sensitive areas. While land use is largely decided at the local level, the document lays out how the state should use its limited funds and marshal the resources of its agencies to steer those decisions.

Some of the plan's key goals struck a major chord with business groups after its introduction in fall 2011, including calls to target the industries that already buttress New Jersey's economy, such as life sciences and health care, and those regions already rich with infrastructure.

But after a series of public hearings and tweaks, the State Planning Commission postponed a vote to adopt the plan late last year. The reason: Officials needed to rework the plan to help the coastal areas battered by Hurricane Sandy.

The 12 months that followed have created uncertainty for proponents and local officials who hope to use the blueprint in their own planning efforts.

In Somerset County, planners have used criteria in the draft version to identify growth and preservation areas inside their borders, giving way to an "investment framework" map to help guide its long-term land use policy. Robert Bzik, the county's director of planning, said those efforts have advanced even while the State Strategic Plan has stalled, but finalizing the document would yield some key benefits.

Specifically, the new guidelines call for refocusing cabinet-level agencies to better support local governments.

"Obviously, without that in place, we don't know how the state is going to implement and coordinate its work at the local level," Bzik said. "So that's a missing piece."

The county map is also one building block for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, or CEDS, crafted by the Somerset County Business Partnership. And the group also pulled themes from Christie's blueprint, including plans to target seven key industry clusters, said John Maddocks, the business group's vice president of economic development.

The CEDS has nine priority areas — ranging from growing business resources to agriculture development — but Maddocks said the county can't achieve every goal on its own. That's where a committed state plan would help fill the gaps, he said.

"I think that there would be a lot more opportunities for connections with a clear policy document," Maddocks said. "It would enable us to … look at our goals and objectives and say, 'The state's got that one covered.' "

Sturm, of New Jersey Future, said Somerset County is an early success story of how the proposed strategic plan could spark efforts at the regional level. She also noted that key policy areas go hand-in-hand with statewide blueprints — namely, the recent overhaul of New Jersey's incentive programs.

"We just think it's an important tool to help the state focus and to help them coordinate their priorities with the private sector and other levels of government," Sturm said.

She added that other state programs such as Green Acres, which funds open space preservation, are often guided by the priority areas outlined by state planners. And judges typically defer to the state plan when deciding zoning disputes between towns and land owners, she said.

But the silence on the draft state plan even has alarmed opponents such as the New Jersey Sierra Club, which says it promotes development in sensitive areas such as the Highlands. Jeff Tittel, the group's director, was happy the plan hasn't proceeded as proposed last year, but "the flaw now is not having anything, which means that everything is a target for growth."

Sturm said it's tough to gauge where the state will go from here, but its next move will have no shortage of observers.

"New Jersey Future will have ongoing, great interest in how they actually implement it," she said. "But the first thing is to get it in place."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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