Applauding Economic Growth Plan

If there’s one feature of the governor’s newly unveiled economic growth plan that’s most appreciated by the business community, it’s the sense of direction it lays out for the state’s most dependable industries.

The plan, a far-reaching proposal to create jobs and sustainable improvement in the Garden State’s business climate, is a targeted effort to strengthen the industries and regions that already form the backbone of the state’s economy, say industry insiders. The State Strategic Job Growth Plan calls for promoting growth in key areas such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, life sciences, finance, manufacturing, technology and health care.

“We project continued, sustained growth for many years to come, given that we have such a vibrant industry here in New Jersey already,” said Debbie Hart, president of the trade group BioNJ. “The biotechnology industry tends to want to cluster with other companies, so the approach of looking at a specific sector and the geography within a sector makes a lot of sense.”

More than 60 percent of New Jersey’s total employment and total wages earned come from about six industry clusters outlined in the 41-page plan, released last week by Gov. Chris Christie. The plan aims to target economic growth in the industries by relying on the existing infrastructure that makes up the so-called regional innovation clusters across the state.

“A document like this, it has the potential of at least calming or giving a businessperson some sense of a direction,” said Robert Loderstedt, president and CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program. “Whether you agree with it or not, there’s a sense of direction, and you can react accordingly — and, to an extent, begin some element of your planning with a little bit more structure and predictability.”

The plan also points to new growth opportunities from emerging industries, such as solar energy, which has generated an estimated 16,800 jobs in New Jersey, according to the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association. The state’s solar market is currently in flux, with an oversupply of credits drastically reducing the prices utilities pay for the so-called SRECs they are required to buy, but Dennis Wilson, the association’s president, said solar manufacturers are poised to be a key part of Christie’s plan.

“We can certainly attract more manufacturing of both solar modules and other components if we have a state solar plan that provides stability and growth to the industry,” said Wilson, founder of Parsippany-based Renewable Power Inc. He pointed to companies such as MX Solar USA and Princeton Power Systems, which already have opened sites and created jobs in New Jersey.

Besides the regional innovation clusters, the plan also would focus development efforts on major urban centers, port areas and existing growth areas identified by regional, county or municipal planning efforts, Christie said in an announcement. The framework also calls for preserving and enhancing critical natural resources, and aligning state government to help see the plan through.

Christie’s office called the plan an “ambitious” but “flexible” guide to New Jersey’s economic development future, criticizing prior planning as “stratified, haphazard and unrealistic.”

Advocates of smart growth also are embracing the approach. Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, said the plan distinguishes itself from prior planning efforts by outlining specific areas that should be developed, and others that should be preserved. He also said Christie’s plan is “heavy on implementation” by pledging that the state is going to lead the effort, rather than relying on county and local governments to do so.

“This plan talks about how the state is going to line up its resources behind this plan, whereas the old plan said ‘Here’s a vision for New Jersey, let’s all hold hands and make it happen,'” Kasabach said.

Industry leaders also lauded the goal of “tactically aligning” state government to implement the plan. The plan calls for creating a steering committee, which will be led by the lieutenant governor and include every state agency or department, to coordinate planning. Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that will address past concerns among business leaders that state agencies cannot work together.

“And that’s critically important because … a lot of these policies transcend and overlap into various departments,” Egenton said. “So having that type of system and organization is beneficial for everyone across the board.”

The committee also will oversee a so-called Garden State Fund for economic development spending around the goals of the plan.

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On Twitter: @JoshBurdNJ

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