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Laying the foundation

In building up key regions, state emphasizing partnerships

One of the key principles in Gov. Chris Christie‘s plan to encourage job growth and economic investment in the state is the importance of working in concert with the private sector to chart a sensible course toward growth.

One of the key principles in Gov. Chris Christie‘s plan to encourage job growth and economic investment in the state is the importance of working in concert with the private sector to chart a sensible course toward growth.

In unveiling his plan, it wasn’t hard to imagine that it was a package wrapped in places like New Brunswick and Newark — which owe their rebirths to such public-private partnerships — or Somerset County, where public officials and business leaders first connected a decade ago.

“Given the scarcity of space, the expense of land and, quite frankly, the expense of doing development in a city, you really do need to put as many resources together and fill as many policy agendas as possible to make a project successful,” said Christopher J. Paladino, president of the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corp., or Devco.

Paladino’s company has developed the city in concert with improvement efforts from major employers like Johnson & Johnson and Rutgers University, and those partnerships continue to drive its projects, including the Gateway transit village and the New Brunswick Wellness Plaza. In those projects, Paladino said, Devco has partnered with city and county officials, private companies and the New Brunswick Parking Authority.

“What we need to do in New Jersey’s cities is look at what the policy goals are, who are the potential participants — and bring everyone to the table to make the projects work,” Paladino said. “Those participants (are) now available” in other cities, like Jersey City, Newark, Camden and Atlantic City.

“We have the infrastructure that kind of creates the type of energy and attracts people for the same reasons that people have been attracted to cities for centuries,” Paladino said. “And we have a number of New Jersey cities that have the infrastructure … that can be the backbone for that type of redevelopment.”

Christie’s proposal, officially called the State Strategic Job Growth Plan, involves identifying New Jersey’s most vibrant regions, focusing on their strengths, involving the private sector and establishing a well-defined plan for economic development.

Cities stand to directly benefit, Paladino said, since they already bring business, cultural and academic institutions to the table. In the last seven years, he said, New Brunswick’s own blueprint has helped bring some 4,000 more residents to a five-block area of the downtown.

“The cities have been here for a long time, but you have to take advantage of what’s here,” said Chip Hallock, president and CEO of the Newark Regional Business Partnership. “Obviously it’s called a strategic plan for a reason, and they’re putting a strategy together to build on that.”

The plan has resonated in Somerset County, which, while not urban, remains a well-established stronghold of life sciences, telecommunications and other industries. Cooperation on economic development is an old story here: Since 2001, the county’s plans for growth have been guided by collaboration between public officials and industry leaders through the Somerset County Business Partnership.

“I think this public-private partnership is the way to do it, because without the direct input and support of the private sector, you run the risk of doing a plan that’s not really responsive to what businesses actually need,” said Mike Kerwin, CEO of the Somerset County Business Partnership. “It’s not like we have to be great at everything. What we do need, though, is policies that support what we already have.”

Kerwin said the business partnership sees Christie’s initiative as an opportunity to complement its own Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, or CEDS, that it launched this year in conjunction with county officials to support emerging industries in the region, including biotech, information technology and nanotechnology companies.

“The timing could not be better, so we plan to do this CEDS to figure out how we’re going to promote our local economy, and we’re going to do it in a way that kind of ties in with the state plan,” Kerwin said. “So it’s a direct linkage.”

In some places, though, it’s the infrastructure that’s yet to come that makes a region attractive. That’s true of the Meadowlands, where the former Xanadu project awaits its rebirth as American Dream, the 2014 Super Bowl gets closer and the privatization of the racetrack moves closer.

The area “has a lot to offer in many different industry sectors,” said Jim Kirkos, CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The idea that someone in the administration is starting to drill down and understand the pockets or regions in the state that have the most opportunity for economic growth is important.”

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Joshua Burd