You know that New Jersey is doing its job of attracting businesses when Junior’s, the fabled cheesecake makers of New York, decides to uproot its Brooklyn-based baking operation, where the company has been for over 60 years, to set up a new, sprawling baking facility — and more than five times the size of the original — in Burlington, New Jersey.
Junior’s made the move last spring, and Alan Rosen, its owner, told the New York Times that cheesecakes baked at the new Burlington facility taste better than those baked in the city.
Michele Brown would be delighted to hear that. She is the CEO of Choose New Jersey, a non-profit, privately funded organization founded in 2010 that works to promote business in the state, with a particular focus on urban centers. Companies like Junior’s is just one of many that her organization tries to attract and retain in New Jersey.
Brown will highlight her organization’s work and the state’s business-friendly incentives during her keynote presentation this Thursday, January 28, as part of the Central Jersey Real Estate Forecast Breakfast organized by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. For more details, visit www.princetonchamber.org.
The year 2015 was a good one, Brown says, with the state seeing the strongest private sector employment growth in 15 years: more than 55,000 jobs created, and state unemployment down a full percentage point.
“What we’re seeing state wide is that we have particular growth in a number of sectors that will be the focus on our attention in 2016 and beyond,” says Brown, who prior to joining Choose New Jersey worked as the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
One of those sectors is the life sciences industry, which Brown says is one of New Jersey’s “greatest areas of strength and growth.” The state has long been known for being a capital of pharmaceuticals, and it is now home to the headquarters of 14 of the 20 largest biopharmaceutical in the world. And in the biotech industry, which has grown by more than 400 percent since 1998, the state now boasts over 400 biotech companies.
“What is really driving the continued health of [the life sciences] industry in our state is, of course, the workforce. We have more scientists and engineers per square mile than any other state in the union, and both pharmaceutical and biotech companies know that when the time comes to commercialize their products there still is no better state than New Jersey to do that in,” says Brown.
Closely tied to the quality of the state’s workforce is its education system. Choose New Jersey recently launched a pilot scholarship and internship program for high schoolers in an effort to encourage them to stay in the state for college. Currently, although New Jersey is one of the nation’s top spenders on education, it has one of the lowest retention rates of high school students. Brown and her team are trying to remedy that, working to make sure New Jersey can retain some of its “best and brightest kids” in the state.
Another area of focus, says Brown, is that of logistics and distribution, which is seeing “tremendous growth.” “With New York to the northeast and Philadelphia to its southwest, we’re perfectly positioned now in the industry of e-commerce to be able to deliver goods to 22 million consumers within a two-hour drive of the middle part of our state.” Amazon, for example, opened its first distribution center in Robbinsville in 2014, and committed to opening another distribution center in the borough of Carteret.
“We take that as a good sign from private industry,” says Brown.
While the distribution center at Robbinsville has created thousands of jobs, it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing with Amazon, either. Residents in surrounding towns have complained of gridlocked traffic, especially during the holiday season, when 4,000-plus employees move in and out of the center during rush hour. It was only after Robbinsville’s mayor threatened to sue Amazon that the company agreed to staggered its shifts, easing the flow of traffic.
Brown says that there are a number of hurdles that New Jersey faces in its efforts spur economic growth. A particular challenge is transportation and infrastructure. The state’s transportation trust fund is in desperate need of replenishing. And even though New Jersey residents have one of the longest average commutes in the country, they have had to deal with crumbling bridges, pothole-riddled roads and commuter trains that in 2014 failed at a rate of four times the national average.
Brown says she would like to see significant investment into infrastructure. “We’re very hopeful that there will be an agreement made at the state wide level to make sure that our roads and bridges are in good shape for continued business to grow and expand,” she says.
A year into her job at Choose New Jersey, Brown says that she is excited for “continuing to make the case that New Jersey is a great place to start and grow a business, and to spread that word not only deep into the state but also to spread that word around the country and at the appropriate time, internationally.”
“That makes me excited and happy everyday, because I think we have something great to advocate for,” she adds.