‘New Jersey was on the right track,” says Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “Then Sandy hit and put everything on the back burner.”
Bracken gives a “State of New Jersey Business” talk at a meeting of the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 14, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Forrestal Village. Cost: $45. Call 609-689-9960, ext. 21.
For Bracken, Sandy was personal. His long-time summer home is in Mantoloking. “It was ground zero,” he says. “Half of the 520 homes are more than 50 percent impaired. Some people have lost their homes and the land they stood on.”
Bracken’s home no longer has a first floor. But still, it is less than 50 percent impaired, which means that he will not have to meet FEMA’s rule that homes so damaged have to be raised 13 feet if they are rebuilt. He is not sure what he and his family will do about their house. But he is sure that the once-idyllic town will never be the same.
Mantoloking was the last shore town to be reopened. Residents started returning at the very end of February. But so far, just six people have moved back, he says.
The worst natural event in more than 100 years in New Jersey has been a tragedy for so many residents. Bracken puts the loss of property in perspective when talks about the people, including a close friend of his, who lost their lives in the storm.
While less tragic than the loss of life, but still significant, the storm’s ripples disrupted business agendas in the state. “Pre-Sandy the state definitely had momentum,” says Bracken, who took over as N.J. Chamber president two years ago after a 42-year career in banking. “We were adding jobs, the business community was optimistic, government approval rating, emanating from the governor’s pro-business agenda, was high.” Had Sandy not driven so hard into New Jersey, he says, “we would have been further along.”
Within just the last two weeks, however, Bracken has seen that the state has been able to turn back to other matters. Money to remediate Sandy’s damage has begun to arrive, some key decisions have been made, and a lot of work has been done. “The business of things outside of the Sandy dilemma is beginning to sprout seeds again,” he says. “We’re able to move forward.”
The storm will give the shore economy a short-term boost as rebuilding provides work for architects, engineers, contractors, and construction workers and generates tax receipts, Bracken points out. Of longer term value, Bracken says, is the “silver lining” that is the new spirit of cooperation among state factions that did not always get along. “It pulled the state together,” he says. “It created a cooperation template that may be able to help us.”
Bracken says that he has seen real progress in this area since Governor Christie took office, bringing with him a pro-business mindset. The business community, he says, is eager to see “a continuation of pro-business legislation.”
Another big issue is “positive momentum on taxes.” Taxes in New Jersey are among the highest in the country, and Bracken says he doesn’t see how they will be substantially reduced any time soon, given the state’s revenue and obligation realities.
But the municipal consolidation that Governor Christie has encouraged is a step in the right direction, he says, pointing out that New Jersey, with 500-plus municipalities in a relatively small land area, is among the most governed states.
“Maybe the best we can do on taxes for now is hold the line, and then chip away,” he says.
Another way to tackle taxes, Bracken adds, is to put them in perspective. Yes, taxes are high, but so are the perks of living and doing business in New Jersey. Getting out that message, talking about transportation, infrastructure, recreation, higher education, outstanding school districts — and, yes, the state’s string of beautiful shore towns — can help potential New Jersey businesses see the value in choosing the Garden State.
In addition to lower taxes, the state’s businesses are eager to see a reduction of the red tape and regulations that, they feel, have “bogged down New Jersey for two decades,” says Bracken. During his tenure at the N.J. Chamber, he says, he has seen progress on these issues.
“Businesses like certainty. They want certainty on healthcare,” he says, and they don’t have it. During his years in banking, most recently as president of TriState Capital Bank and before that as president of Sun Bancorp, Bracken says he became somewhat resigned to the ever-rising cost of healthcare. “You get the best coverage you can at the best cost, and you just live with it,” he says. Always expensive, healthcare, in his opinion, has become only more uncertain under new federal mandates.
While businesses hope for improvement on taxes, restrictive regulations, and healthcare costs, they are ready, says Bracken, to move forward from the cost cutting that has characterized operations for many of them during the past few years. “You can’t cost cut your way to profitability,” he says. After years of cutting staff and reducing expenses in operations, businesses are craving growth and healthier bottom lines.
Steps to achieve this growth in New Jersey, says Bracken, include an increased international focus, more opportunities to network, and stronger in-state supply chains.
Harking back to the post-Sandy spirit of cooperation, he says that unity in the business community will move important initiatives forward. He has been instrumental in forming a new entity, Chambers United, with this in mind.
The new organization seeks to pull together all 141 chambers of commerce in the state with a focus on the 15 larger regional chambers. Just formalized three or four months ago, Chambers United, says Bracken, will “work on issues to enhance the business community. It will evaluate business issues proposed by the legislature.”
In time, Chambers United will bring trade organizations under its umbrella to give it stronger backing. “It’s the first time we have a very strong voice for business,” says Bracken.
This should be a big positive for the state’s businesses as they begin to move past the devastation of Sandy — and hope that pre-Sandy gains hold in the face of late-winter and spring storms, new healthcare regulations, and everything else that 2013 holds in store.