Somerset County is the center of New Jersey’s economic universe, says Mike Kerwin, president and CEO of the Somerset County Business Partnership. While many other counties would certainly like to challenge that statement, Kerwin makes a pretty good case for it. Somerset County is home to at least a dozen major corporations, and they are not all pharma-related. MetLife, Chubb, Verizon, and ATT all have facilities in Somerset County along with pharmaceutical giants Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

Kerwin will be the guest speaker at the Montgomery Township Economic Development Commission’s annual fall business networking forum, Tuesday, October 25, at 6 p.m. at Tusk Restaurant on Route 206 South in Montgomery. The event is free to attend. Call 609-216-3123

The SCBP, in conjunction with the county’s Board of Freeholders, recently sponsored a long-term economic development plan and feasibility analysis to look at the potential for economic growth in the county. “We reached out to the private sector to tell us what they needed. It’s been a unique opportunity for the private sector to meet and discuss their needs with the public sector,” Kerwin says.

Kerwin comes to the partnership with a background in business. Though he does not have a degree in architecture, he is a former president of SSP Architectural Group, the longest-operating architectural firm in New Jersey. He received a bachelor’s in psychology and government from Georgetown University in 1975 and a law degree from Villanova in 1978. “You might think I’m not using my degrees,” he says, “but I find my background in psychology helps me every day in the business world.”

Kerwin has been involved in the SCBP since its inception. He helped to manage the merger of several independent organizations including the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce, Coalition for Smart Growth, and the Somerset Alliance for the Future.

Kerwin also has held office in Somerville. He served as a borough councilman from 1985 to 1988 and then as mayor until 1990. He was a Somerset County freeholder in 1991.

#b#Emerging industries#/b#. The “Emerging Industry Campaign” is designed to “ensure Somerset County’s role in capital formation and job generation of industries driving the next wave of growth,” says Kerwin. It will also create economic diversity in the county — an important aspect of the program, because diversity is one of the best hedges against unemployment.

In addition, Kerwin says, focusing on global business dynamics, rather than narrower, more localized businesses, makes it easier for an area to weather economic downturns. This approach “will ultimately strengthen the local tax base and keep taxes down for county residents,” he adds.

The six major industries Emerging Industries identified were biotech, IT, nanotechnology, geospatial technology (the discipline of gathering, storing, processing, and delivering geographic information for everything from urban planning to disaster response), laser applications, and alternative energy. Somerset County will focus on nanotechnology, geospatial technology, and bioinformatics, which is the application of computer science and information technology to biology and medicine, Kerwin says.

“We need to foster a critical mass in industries of the future to make it easier to recruit companies in these targeted sectors,” he says. “Focusing on economic sectors that typically serve national and global markets, as opposed to local markets, which have the least employment multiplier effect, will help to increase Somerset County’s potential for employment and future growth.” Kerwin also says it is important to concentrate on broad industry sectors, rather than on smaller subsectors.

#b#Infrastructure needs#/b#. To attract new industries to a county, the area must have sufficient infrastructure. For this reason Emerging Industries focused on areas that need strengthening — transportation and waste water treatment. “There is increasing traffic congestion in the county and if we are to grow, we must address this problem,” Kerwin says.

In addition, Emerging Industries’ report suggests the county develop a life sciences center and technology incubator. The center would be oriented toward the selected emerging industries and could be a joint venture between a private developer, the business partnership, and area colleges.

#b#Other needs#/b#. Accessibility to venture capital is always an important component in attracting new industry. “We need to develop a strong and reliable angel venture capital network,” Kerwin says. There must also be a campaign to brand and market Somerset County “as a developing player and ultimately the leader” in the three selected emerging industries.

The result of the original study on economic growth in the county has been an application for a SEDS (Social and Economic Development Strategies) grant from the federal government. Kerwin is optimistic about the county’s chances to obtain the grant. “This has been a unique partnership between the public and the private sectors,” he says. “It is not often that business people and corporate executives have the opportunity to work this closely on planning with people from the public sector.”

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