Business leaders hash out economic solutions at chamber summit

Matthew Fazelpoor//April 25, 2022

Business leaders hash out economic solutions at chamber summit

Matthew Fazelpoor//April 25, 2022

Gov. Phil Murphy delivers the keynote address to the Chamber of Commerce ReNew Jersey Business Summit and Expo “In the absence of the Chamber Train, I cannot think of a better place for us to all gather than Atlantic City,” Murphy said. – RUSS DESANTIS PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO LLC


It was the type of event that harkened back to a time before the pandemic changed lives and businesses in New Jersey and around the country forever. Billed as a conference to present ways to reignite a full-throttle economic recovery in the state, the Chamber of Commerce hosted more than 650 business and government leaders at the Borgata in Atlantic City for the 2022

ReNew Jersey Business Summit & Business Expo. It was also organized as a replacement for the Walk to Washington, which was cancelled because of the pandemic.

“In the absence of the Chamber Train, I cannot think of a better place for us to all gather than Atlantic City,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at the top of his keynote address.

Chamber of Commerce President Tom Bracken set the tone during his welcome comments, saying more than dialogue was needed to address the plight of the business community, which he said was in a state of disrepair, and that not enough was being done by the governor and Legislature to address it.

“We need to turn dialogue into action, but we need to do it in a forceful way,” Bracken said. “We need to do it with respect. And we need to do it with persistence, both on an individual and a collective basis. What do I mean by that? Everybody in this room needs to engage. You have to engage. And then, collectively, we can engage. That kind of engagement and that kind of unified effort is what’s going to get something done.”

The call to action kicked off the first day, which featured four panels of business leaders and owners. Murphy’s speech closed the day.

Each panel addressed a question, which was also presented to the audience. The five panel questions and themes were:

  • New Jersey’s Economic Climate: What problems continue to hold back New Jersey’s economy and what are the key things that need to be done to ignite a full-throttle economic recovery?
  • Health Care Costs: With COVID-19 and its variants expected to remain a factor in our efforts to ReNew Jersey, what can we expect of the pandemic in 2022 and what new ways can we look at providing and controlling health care costs for businesses?
  • Infrastructure and the Environment: Which infrastructure projects should be prioritized in our efforts to ReNew Jersey and, as we dig new tunnels, create new energy sources, expand mass transit and build new roads, will businesses be impacted by new taxes or regulations aimed at protecting the environment?
  • Taxes and Incentives: What can the business community recommend to New Jersey state leaders in the way of tax cuts, financial incentives or support policies that will immediately help business and ignite a robust economic upturn?
  • The Labor Shortage and Workforce Development: How does New Jersey effectively address the labor shortage in the short-term and ensure a well-educated and qualified workforce in the long-term?

“What we should fear most is the worst thing that can happen is inaction – not doing what is right and not doing it now,” Bracken said. “All we ask is for the opportunity, which starts with a commitment from them. Both those two groups, Legislature and the governor, a commitment from them for meaningful, honest, ongoing, consistent dialogue.”

The discussions offered a way for everyone to break out of their silos — a tendency exacerbated during the pandemic — to share challenges, ideas, solutions and more. The panels yielded a variety of recommendations and similar themes of what issues plague businesses most.

Some of the biggest challenges cited by the businesses and panels were labor shortages, supply chain hurdles, overly burdensome regulations, duplicative processes, lack of child care, lack of consistent communication with government leaders, inflation and, of course, taxes.

“I think one of the biggest issues for us right now is just people to execute the job,” said Lisa Chowansky, president and owner of HC Constructors. “And we’re a heavy civil construction company, we’re out in the field where we can’t have someone building underground infrastructure remotely. It’s very hard for us to get labor to get out there and do the work.”

PSE&G President and CEO Kim Hanemann, left, listens as HC Constructors owner and President Lisa Chanowsky speaks. – RUSS DESANTIS PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO LLC


“We’re all in this thing together,” said John Harmon, founder, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. “[The state] has an opportunity to come into some of the communities that traditionally have not been part of the economy and have them serve as that pipeline. There’s a multitude of people who just need that access to compete.”

“The other thing that’s amazing to me is the lack of communication among the various parts of government. Oftentimes, to be dealing with one agency, I’m telling one part of DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] what another part of DEP decided to do. And that is where I’m getting into the regulatory hang ups and the inability to get projects to the starting line, much less the finish line,” said Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC member Dennis Toft.

John Harmon, founder and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, listens as state Chamber CEO Tom Bracken makes a point. – RUSS DESANTIS PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO LLC


“We don’t hear back about whether or not they (government staffers) think that’s a good idea or what do you need to take that to the next step? And we’re sitting there saying, ‘and we’re ready to work with you each and any day.’ So, do they answer? Yes. Are we in the black hole? Yes. Do we need more engagement? Absolutely,” said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO, New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

The discussion points and recommendations from the first four panels were a sharp contrast to the prettier picture painted by Murphy during his speech.

“I am happy to be here today because, frankly, New Jersey has a very good story to tell,” Murphy said.

He went on to highlight the state’s two recent credit upgrades, its GDP growth, the budget surpluses, plans to address affordability during this budget process and the rise of new sectors, such as film and television, legal cannabis, sports betting, offshore wind energy and the growth of startups in New Jersey.

“This growth becomes even more impressive given that it came against the headwinds of national inflationary pressures, huge mental health stress and learning, and the onset of the omicron tsunami, any one of which could have stopped our forward motion,” Murphy said.

At the same time, the governor expressed openness to collaborating with the attendees.

“I am a firm believer that we work better when we work together. I am a better governor when I hear thoughts – whether they be good, bad, or indifferent – not in one-off conversations, but in immersive events such as this,” Murphy said.

The governor closed with a call for attendees to spend some money to support Atlantic City, along with a look forward to his second term.

“I know we’re not always going to agree on everything, but I also know we’re going to have serious discussions where we talk with each other and not over each other,” Murphy said. “And perhaps, just as importantly, I look forward to continuing to visit businesses large and small as I travel across our state.”

“Quite frankly, if you’re willing to open your doors to me, I am happy to stop by.”

Legislative contact

Day two opened with a welcome speech by Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, as well as one more panel before the finale, which featured four of the state’s top legislative leaders hearing some of the key recommendations from the previous five panels — roughly 30 formal recommendations in all. The legislative panel was comprised of State Senate President Nick Scutari, D-22nd District, Senate Republican Leader Steve Oroho, R-24th District, Assembly Democratic Leader Lou Greenwald, D-6th District, and Assembly Republican Leader John DiMaio, R-23rd District.

Among the issues and recommendations laid out to the four leaders were holding quarterly or regular meetings with leaders in the business community; having the appropriate state agencies better collaborate with partners to enhance the talent pipeline; a serious review of current regulations; prioritizing shovel-ready projects with a regional impact; making the maze of agencies easier to navigate; reconstituting a Department of Commerce; and replenishing the unemployment Insurance fund with federal relief dollars.

The four lawmakers showcased their close relationships and spoke in a bipartisan manner. They agreed with much of what panels had to say, especially on government inefficiency and communication.

Greenwald said the group would welcome more consistent meetings and feedback from the business leaders, while advocating for formal contacts to create more efficiency.
“Why don’t we create more liaisons to industries from department to department to help smooth the process,” Greenwald asked.

DiMaio agreed with much of the feedback, especially on regulation. “Nothing slows down projects down more than the state regulators,” DiMaio said. “Sometimes DEP slows down DOT [Department of Transportation] on projects.”

“I think what the minority leader just said is extraordinarily important in that intergovernmental, I wouldn’t call it friction, the difficulties we have with different departments when businesses are trying to get things done,” Scutari said. “You’ve got DOT, DEP. You’ve got so many different entities. And then we have different regulations and sometimes, frankly, with different laws that aren’t congruent and say different things.”

The panelists ran through ideas and priorities they felt could happen imminently to help the business community. Greenwald reiterated that liaisons would help address the calls for more shovel-ready projects.

Sen. Steven Oroho, Assembly member Louis Greenwald, Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly member John DiMaio discuss the issues during the legislative panel. – RUSS DESANTIS PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO LLC


“I absolutely endorse and support shovel-ready projects,” Greenwald said. “I think creating liaisons back to industry, so that would be told from the communities which of these projects are ready to go, so that we could prioritize them and get them out with a regional focus.”

While discussing the tranche of infrastructure funding that New Jersey will receive, Oroho identified technology as a potential “shovel-ready” project.

“Infrastructure is obviously roads and bridges and everything, but also technology, and we know that New Jersey’s technology is broken,” Oroho said. “To me, that’s a shovel-ready project right now.”

While the lawmakers agreed that a Department of Commerce would be beneficial, they questioned the cost and had concerns about adding another layer of bureaucracy to the current maze. But, felt an ombudsmen or czar could be a better model to accomplish the same goals. They also noted that some current inefficiencies exist simply because the state is down some 17,000 employees.

“So we need to get creative in how we’re finding solutions,” Greenwald said.

The panel wrapped with Scutari revealing that the much-discussed replenishment of the Unemployment Trust Fund is under active consideration in this current budget pro-cess.

What’s next?

While the summit offered a chance for conversations between groups and individuals not usually in the same room together, results could take time to emerge.

Following the event, Siekerka said that while she respects the governor’s words and statistics, it does not change the headwinds that small businesses in New Jersey continue to face. She said there are many disconnects between the words and reality.

“If you’re a small business in the state of New Jersey today, right, you are clawing by your nails from a tight rope to hold yourself together,” Siekerka told NJBIZ. “The harsh reality is we’ve got some significant challenges that take true reform.”

But she did acknowledge that coming together and discussing issues with a diverse group is a positive. “Having the diversity of ideas, thought, and opinion around the table from all the different places that people come from totally enriches the process,” she said. “The whole idea of pulling down the silos, getting grassroots and bringing people around the table who have unique thoughts is significantly important to the public.”

Dana Lancellotti, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, and a panelist, told NJBIZ that she thought it was good to hear people talking together and to simply be in the same room for such an important cause. “There’s always a lot more energy and productivity when people are together in person than on virtual,” she said. “There were some really interesting and very brilliant people there participating.”

Lancellotti also did not sugarcoat the ongoing issues the businesses she represents face, especially labor shortages. But, she did note the upside of breaking down the silos and hearing things you may have in common with another leader or business owner. “It’s absolutely a win when you pull people together, especially, when you pull people together that may not otherwise have been talking to each other about these topics,” she said.

Days after the summit, Bracken released a statement clarifying his comments regarding the plight of the business community, which suggested the governor and Legislature “are not doing anything about it of substance.”

“This was an overly aggressive and inaccurate statement,” Bracken said. “It is not how I feel about what has been done, but I said it and need to own it.”
Bracken went on to apologize and said he was simply saying more needs to be done to help the business community, noting that he complimented the governor for his ef-forts to make the state’s economy fairer. He said his hope is now to apply the same focus and energy in creating the nation’s strongest economy.

“We need to work together to accomplish our mutual goal of making New Jersey the premier state in which to live and work and I look forward to continuing that effort with them,” Bracken said.

One thing is for certain, which nearly every participant would agree with. Any progress starts and ends with the pandemic and whether New Jersey can continue to move past it, while avoiding new variant waves that could lead to restrictions. Scutari called attention to the topic as he closed out the final panel.

“Continuing to see our population get back to a feeling of normalcy, to me, is the top priority for New Jersey.”