Cumberland County officials hope that a restructuring of their economic development operations can help improve one of the worst county economies in New Jersey.
The restructuring not only involves a new shared services agreement with the Cumberland County Improvement Authority, but also creates a 10-member advisory panel.
That Economic Development Steering Committee will eventually consist of people such as bankers, developers, real estate brokers, planners and others who are already “on the job (and) in the trenches,” said Cumberland County Freeholder Doug Long.
“We want people who understand how to move this big boat in the right direction,” Long said.
Long said the restructuring will result in something other a “shotgun approach” to fixing the county’s economy.
“I think we’ve tried the shotgun approach and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “We need to be specific about what we’re doing.”
Cumberland County’s economy started slumping in the 1970s and 1980s with the loss of many manufacturing jobs. Many of those jobs were linked with what was once a booming glass-making industry.
Statistics from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development show the county had a 13 percent unemployment rate in November. The state’s overall unemployment rate was 9 percent for that month, the latest for which statistics are available.
Those figures also show that 9,150 members of the county’s estimated 71,250-person work force were without employment as of November.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cumberland County’s median household income for 2007 through 2011 was $52,004. The state average for that period was $71,180. The census figures also show that about 6 percent of county residents were living below the poverty line for the 2007 through 2011 period, while the state average is about 9 percent.
Cumberland County officials have tried several programs to help reinvigorate the economy.
In April, they rolled out the Partners in the Revitalization, Investment and Development of the Cumberland County Economy. The program was to foster agribusiness and food science, two industries linked to the county’s agricultural history. The program was also designed to bolster the county’s tourism industry, focusing on things such as Delaware Bay activities, farm markets, hiking, biking, birding and attractions such as Landis MarketPlace in Vineland and Millville’s Arts District.
A significant part of the program also involved training workers for jobs in medical, health care and health services. County officials said those jobs make up one of the largest private-sector industries in the county.
The restructuring of the county’s economic development setup was approved by the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders in January.
The restructuring moves the Office of Economic Development from the Department of Planning and Development. The office and its new director, James Watson, of East Greenwich Township in Gloucester County, now report directly to County Administrator Kenneth Mecouch.
The resolution authorizing the agreement between county government and the improvement authority states that both entities will work together “for the purpose of promoting economic development and related activity.”
Part of that will involve the improvement authority helping existing businesses in the county, and attracting new business, with help in things such as financing, tax options and project management, Long said.
Helping those existing businesses is particularly important, he said. The county does not want to overlook the efforts of those merchants and “roll out the red carpet” solely for new business ventures, he said.
Another goal of the restructuring is to better inform merchants of available programs that can help them improve or expand their businesses, Long said.
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