Today’s economic realities do not conform to the political realities one sees on map. “Everything has changed,” says James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “All the counties, including Mercer, Burlington, and Monmouth, are all impacted by the same issues in the 21st century. Each county has to look at what they are dealing with on a regional basis. They can’t go it alone any more. What affects them crosses county lines.”

Hughes will present the keynote address at the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce Cross County Economic Symposium: Burlington, Monmouth, and Mercer. The event takes place on Thursday, April 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Old York Country Club in Chesterfield. Cost: $65. Register at www.midjerseychamber.org.

In addition to Hughes, other scheduled speakers at the symposium include Donna Lewis, Mercer County planning director; Mark A. Remsa, director of Burlington County Economic Development and Regional Planning; and Edward Sampson, Monmouth County planning director.

Hughes has been dean of the Bloustein School since 1995 and a member of the Rutgers faculty since 1971. “Be careful what you do at Rutgers,” he jokingly warns his undergraduates. “If you don’t plan, you could end up spending your next 35 years here, like me.”

Son of an Elizabeth bricklayer, Hughes began his career serving in the U.S. army in peacetime Korea. A state school scholarship and G.I. bill initially guided Hughes toward Rutgers, where he earned his engineering bachelor’s in 1965. Then, as he tells it, one professor after another lured him through a masters and Ph.D. in urban planning, and on into the then-new Bloustein School.

He is a nationally recognized academic expert on demographics, housing, and regional economics, and is co-author of 33 books and monographs and more than 150 articles.

Hughes has been the director of the Rutgers Regional Report, which, during its 23-year tenure, and has produced 35 major economic/housing studies of the New Jersey and New York regions.

“The national economy has made strides since the Great Recession. New Jersey lagged behind but is now really picking up,” says Hughes. The Garden State lost 116,000 jobs in 2009, and added just 9,200 in 2010, but rebounded to add 28,400 in 2011, and 59,100 in 2012. “What we have is a pretty good trend, but it will take until 2014 to recover all the jobs lost since 2007, which was the start of the Great Recession. And the way we work has changed on top of it.”

His talk will also center on how the Baby Boomer generation is beginning to leave the workforce, replaced by their children, the Eco-Boomers, who are working with a different economy and living a different lifestyle from their parents.

“Our generation was a suburban-motivated one,” says Hughes. “It was built on living outside the city. That has changed with our children, who are replacing us in the workforce. They look for a walkable existence, where housing, stores and transportation to work is close by. There is a move back to the city from the suburbs. I see how this is affecting New Jersey.”

Hughes feels the huge office parks, built during the boom of the Princeton-Plainsboro U.S. 1 corridor in the 1980s into the 1990s, are obsolete today. He associates the development of the Pentium computer chip and its marketing in 1995 as the forerunner of change.

“Eighty per cent of New Jersey’s office space was built in the 1980s. The theory was put up an office park with an asphalt parking lot in the suburbs. It was a place of business, no distractions,” he says. What the Pentium did was connect everyone to the Internet and things changed. Later chips made notebooks more powerful, smartphones, and tablets were developed, and now everyone can do their jobs totally untethered.”

“Companies are finding they don’t need office space for 100 percent of their workers, maybe half,” says Hughes. “And those who are in the offices are looking for jogging trails, places to eat. Our children replacing us in the workforce have a much more active lifestyle.”

“So how do we change some of these 1980s-1990s office parks to make them more conducive to this generation of workers?” Hughes asks. “Cooperation is needed there as well.”

He agrees that one can see the 21st-century lifestyle changing New Jersey’s landscape. Rather than office parkes, current projects include transit villages and town centers being planned and built.

“Today’s younger workers are looking for a place to gather, a kind of downtown, housing that is close,” says Hughes. “The old office parks lack a lot of that.”

Robert D. Prunetti, president and CEO of the MIDJersey Chamber and a former Mercer County executive, points to the arrival of Frontier Airlines at the Trenton-Mercer Airport and the decision by Amazon to locate a million-square-foot distribution center in Robbinsville as examples of positive developments for the region.

“Both Frontier flying to 10 destinations out of Trenton-Mercer and Amazon’s decision to place a major operation in Robbinsville further show what we are trying to do in bringing business in the three counties together,” says Prunetti.

“I talked to a lot of people from all three counties when I flew to Florida myself on Frontier. People are enjoying the choice, rather than going to one of the bigger airports. They are seeing what Mercer and the adjacent counties have to offer.

“With Amazon, the hundreds of jobs will be filled by workers within easy reach of the three counties. They live, work, and spend money in the three counties.

The symposium will include a presentation from Chuck McMahon of the Howard Hughes Corporation, the owner of the 660-acre former American Cyanamid property at the intersection of Route 1 and Quakerbridge Road. The company has recently announced intentions to develop the tract and has held several community forums for residents’ input (U.S. 1, January 16). “We’re interested to hear what Hughes has to say, and how it looks at our area,” says Prunetti.

“We organized this symposium to focus on the growth of the areas surrounding the intersection of Burlington, Monmouth and Mercer counties. In the future, we hope to spread the message of cross-county cooperation to more of central New Jersey.”

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