Near the bottom of the nation. Not doing well. In the tank.

Those are just some of the ways in which recent media reports have described New Jersey’s sluggish economy, which since the recession has seen poverty go up, state revenue go down, and an unemployment rate frustratingly above the national average.

The first ever New Jersey Business Summit, to be held Thursday and Friday, September 17 and 18, aims to address issues that will improve the state’s economy and competitiveness. The two-day summit, organized by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, will be held in Atlantic City, bringing together top-ranking legislators, business leaders, and more than 40 organizations.

“Some of the issues have come to a point where if we don’t address them soon, we’re going to continue to fall from a competitive situation vis-a-vis the other states,” says Thomas Bracken, CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

He was referring specifically to four key issues identified by 400 business executives in a statewide survey this year: the state’s tax structure; transportation and infrastructure; the state government’s regulations and mandates; and workforce readiness.

“Many businesses in this state are at a point where they’re just kind of tired of not seeing progress made faster, especially in light of the fact that New Jersey has such enormous resources that in some cases we’re not fully taking advantage of. We’re trying to make things better for people,” Bracken says.

As a key representative of the state’s business community, the chamber is aiming to use the summit to present a united front, create a bigger voice, and to do things on a “collective basis.”

“The thinking is that for many years, the business community has had a fragmented business voice,” which has hindered its ability to “fight aggressively” against regulations and mandates, Bracken says.

“The feeling among many business organizations was that we need to find a way to come together and create this business voice, and make sure that the legislature understands what our issues are, and understand that we want to help in improving the economy,” Bracken says. And to do that, there needs to be “constructive dialogue” with the legislature and a very “forward-thinking and positive” approach to addressing the issues.

Too often, Bracken says, organizations in New Jersey have presented issues for resolution individually or in small groups. But “things have much more impact when they’re presented by a greater group of constituents representing thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees in businesses. The bigger the voice, the more the recommendations or suggestions are taken to heart.”

He hopes to bring together the business community, the legislature, and the administration to work towards reviving the state’s economic momentum.

“It’s sort of like a three-legged stool. We have an administration right now that is business-friendly and shares a lot of our pro-business initiatives. We need the legislature to understand why we feel that improvement is needed in certain areas and if improvement is made, how we can then work with them to improve our economy,” Bracken says.

Bracken is a Skillman resident and a veteran banker with four decades of experience in the banking and financial services industry. After graduating from Bucknell University in 1969 with a degree in political science, he went into banking and finance because he needed a job and thought the industry would be a good way to explore a variety of different industries. “But I really liked banking, so I stayed,” he says.

While neither of his parents worked in the industry — his father owned a funeral home, and his mother was a homemaker — his uncle was “a very prominent banker in Pennsylvania,” he says.

He got his first job at the First Trenton National Bank, which he praised for its very good training program. He stayed with the bank and its successor banks for 35 years, and left when First Union merged with Wachovia, which in turn was soon bought by Wells Fargo. Bracken says he didn’t enjoy working for the very large bank, and joined Sun Bancorp as president and CEO in 2001. In 2007 he left Sun Bancorp to head up the TriState Capital Bank’s New Jersey operations, a position he held until 2011, when he became the president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Bracken says that many businesses, frustrated with the lack of progress, feel that they are stuck in a rut.

“There are a lot of issues that have been identified, and nothing’s being done about them. Everyday you pick up the paper and you read about the issues, but there’s been no discussion about them lately and no real initiatives to start to resolve the problems. And if these issues aren’t resolved, they’re not going to get any better,” he says. “We need to get things moving in a productive direction, and they are not at the present time.”

Every legislator has been individually invited to the summit, he says, and four major legislative leaders will be in attendance: Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick. The legislators will form a panel at the end of the second day and will be presented with the results of the previous day’s discussions.

“We’re not going there hat in hand, begging for things. The basic thing we’re saying is, ‘Please listen to what we have to say,’” says Bracken. “We’re not necessarily talking about tax breaks. We’re talking about identifying some things that will make our state more competitive, and maybe attract new businesses, create jobs, and make our economy better.”

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