CONTACT: Seb D’Elia, 908-527-4419



Column By Union County Freeholder Chairman Angel G. Estrada

About a decade ago, the Union County Freeholder Board commissioned a study which indicated the County had been experiencing high unemployment and lagged well behind in many other economic metrics.

The report served as impetus for the Freeholder Board to put together an economic development baseline report with Rutgers University that helped to bring our business, governmental and non-profit partners to the table and take action.

Since then, our achievements with our partners have been notable:
We rebuilt and expanded roadways.
We renovated train stations.
We dredged our seaport to improve the flow of shipping commerce.
We expanded our airport—one of the world’s busiest.
We built the state’s largest mall on the site of a former landfill.
We increased retail opportunities along Routes 1&9 and Route 22 throughout the County, and launched a grant program that helped revitalize our Downtowns.

In short, we revitalized and repositioned Union County as an employment and transportation hub and a development boom washed over the region. A diverse and stable economy is in place.

However, it is not enough to rest on past accomplishments, as economic and market conditions consistently change. Last year, as one of Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski’s initiatives, we decided to bring our partners back at the table to survey our economic health and develop a plan to keep Union County thriving.

And it’s a good thing we did. Since we commissioned the study, the nation has since slipped into a recession, and the subprime crisis has crippled lending and credit markets, bringing the real estate industry to a screeching halt.

Union County recently unveiled the plan---the Union County Economic and Workforce Competitiveness Project—developed in consultation with the prestigious John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

This multi-phase plan assesses the current economic, educational and workforce barometers of the County, its resources, and makes recommendations for future growth in these areas.

As part of its findings, the report noted the County has successfully moved from declining “old economy” manufacturing sectors to a more diverse knowledge-based, advanced manufacturing economy such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, educational services and retail trade.

The report also identifies the County’s health care, transportation and warehousing, pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing sectors as likely candidates for sustainable growth.

Based on these findings, the Union County Alliance will conduct roundtables to bring our partners together from all sectors---governmental, workforce, educational and non-profit---in an effort to sustain our new economy and implement an action plan that includes:

  1. Supporting a transportation, logistics and distribution cluster by working with existing and new companies to developing business connections between these firms and other industries.
  2. Developing a Countywide workforce plan to adopt to changing conditions and ensure all residents access to educational, and job training programs designed to meet the needs of Union County’s economy.
  3. Supporting the Portfields Initiative by developing a trade-free zone, a cleanup plan and marketing initiatives.

The Portfields Initiative is a project of Union County, the Port Authority and the NJ Economic Development Authority. It is designed to support the port and airport, two of the region's primary economic drivers, with warehouse and distribution development on 17 identified brownfields or underutilized sites in Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. In Union County, the project involves six sites: the Wakefern property on Division Street, Greenfield Builders / North Avenue, Port Elizabeth Business Park, Elizabeth Bayway Area and Reichold Chemical (land in Elizabeth and Linden), Linden Airport and Tremley Point, also in Linden.

Union County’s central location, its road and transportation infrastructure, and its diverse workforce and business sectors serve as a strong draw for companies. According to a recent report by the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, the total vacancy rate for the Central New Jersey office market, including Union County, dropped from 16.4 percent to 15.6 percent at the end of the third quarter. At 8.9 percent, Union County has the lowest vacancy rate in Central New Jersey.

Even with the region facing uncertain economic times, Union County can continue to thrive if it focuses on sustaining our strengths—which includes transportation, shipping, warehousing, pharmaceuticals, retail, and educational sectors---while maintaining our traditional manufacturing base. We look forward to implementing this action plan with the help of our many partners to ensure Union County’s best days are still ahead.