Cumberland County officials are proceeding with plans for a more than $60 million economic development project, part of which has some Vineland merchants worried about a loss of business.

The Cumberland County Improvement Authority, a quasi-governmental authority tasked with economic development, recently awarded the next phase of construction, engineering and architectural contracts for the projects in the county's three cities.

Projects include an estimated $45 million for the county's first full-time technical high school and a $6 million county Workforce Investment Board building on the Cumberland County College campus in Millville and Vineland.

The third and most controversial project involves an estimated $14 million three-story office building on Laurel Street in downtown Bridgeton that would house the Cumberland County Board of Social Services offices now located in Vineland. Local officials are worried that project, which would help Bridgeton, would hurt Vineland's economy.

Once the projects are completed, according to preliminary plans, the county would lease the buildings from the CCIA. It currently leases the social services offices from a private party. That lease expires in August 2014.

"They're moving too fast on this," Vineland Mayor Ruben Bermudez said.

Bermudez said the move would mean the loss of 200 social services workers and potentially thousands of clients who go there. That would mean a loss of business for nearby merchants.

County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi, a Vineland resident and part of the Republican minority on the board, echoed Bermudez's concern. Fiocchi is a candidate for the Assembly.

"We don't have to move," Fiocchi said, charging that the exact costs of leasing all the new buildings from the CCIA is not yet known.

County Administrator Kenneth Mecouch said preliminary estimates indicate the county will either break even or save about $30,000 annually. Savings could come from such factors as more efficient heating and cooling systems, he said.

Doug Long, another county freeholder, said proceeding with the projects is necessary to spur economic development in a county with one of the worst economies in New Jersey.

"If we're not going to invest in our own county, why should anyone else," Long said.

Still, concerns about the potential loss of business created by the planned relocation of the social services operation has some Vineland officials worried. Bermudez and Greater Vineland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dawn Hunter met this past week with officials with the CCIA and county government.

Hunter said it was learned during the meeting that county and local officials indicated they are trying to help find a new tenant for the Vineland building, located on the Delsea Drive.

"They are working on that," she said. "It is being addressed. The main thing we feel positive about is the communication. We all sat down and discussed it."

Hunter said the chamber is taking no formal stand on the Bridgeton office building project. The chamber supports both projects planned for the college campus, she said, adding it "makes a lot of sense" to locate those facilities near each other.

The plan is the latest effort to improve Cumberland County's struggling economy.

Statistics from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development show Cumberland County's nearly 13-percent unemployment rate in May was the highest county rate in the state. The state's unemployment rate is between 8 and 9 percent.

U.S. Census Bureau statistics also show that about 77 percent of Cumberland County residents age 25 and older are high school graduates. The state average is 88 percent.

The county's median household income of $52,000 is about $20,000 less than the state figure, the census numbers show. And, almost 16 percent of county residents live poverty, far more then 9 percent statewide number.

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