Cumberland County is proposing about $65 million worth of development projects that officials hope will attract new businesses to the economically struggling area by providing a better trained and educated work force.
The projects include building an estimated $45 million full-time technical high school and an estimated $6 million county Workforce Investment Board building on the Cumberland County College campus in Millville and Vineland.
That will create what Freeholder Doug Long called a “triangle of economic development” helpers on a single campus. Those three entities can work together and become the envy of the state by upgrading labor skills and increasing educational opportunities, he said.
The plan also involves construction of a three-story office building on Laurel Street in downtown Bridgeton. The building, estimated to cost about $14 million, will serve as the new home for the Cumberland County Board of Social Services and help revitalize what officials said is a city struggling more than any other municipality in the county.
The building will bring 210 workers and thousands of people who need the board’s services to downtown Bridgeton, Freeholder Director William Whelan said. The city also will get a much-needed ratable, he said.
County officials admit the projects, revealed during Tuesday’s meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders, represent an ambitious undertaking. They also said the work is needed to lift up a county that traditionally ranks last or near-last in a series of indicators ranging from health to employment.
“It’s important for our county to change direction and do something different,” Whelan said. “We’re not going to do that until we educate our work force. Unless we do this, we are going to continue to be right where we are.”
The project will “put us on the map for businesses to know we are open for business and have a trainable work force,” said Jerry Velazquez, executive director of the Cumberland County Improvement Authority.
“We need to put our best foot forward,” said Velazquez, whose agency serves as the developer for all three projects.
Despite their enthusiasm for the project, county officials admit that finances will play a large role in how much can be accomplished.
County officials said they likely will present plans for the technical high school to the state Department of Education in June. They said the county’s low economic factors could mean the state would fund as much as 70 percent of the project. Long said it would be difficult to build the school without significant financial help from the state.
Velazquez said the Improvement Authority will put together various funding packages for the three projects. Those packages are still in the development stages, he said.
Officials said some of the money will come from the $1.4 million the county pays annually to lease a building on Delsea Drive in Vineland that currently houses the social services and Workforce Investment Board offices. The lease on the building expires in August 2014. That is when Velazquez said the county expects those agencies to be in their new surroundings in Bridgeton and on the Cumberland County College campus.
However, Bernard Brown, who owns the Vineland building leased by the county, is apparently lining up opposition to the plan.
Brown stated in a letter sent recently to the freeholders that abandoning his building will cause nearby merchants to lose significant business generated by the social services and Workforce Investment Board staff and clients. He said he has communicated that concern to Vineland Mayor Ruben Bermudez. He wants the county to consider buying his building, although he has not suggested a purchase price.
Bermudez said he wants the county to determine whether it would be more cost-effective to buy the Delsea Drive facility instead of building something new.
“Why would they make a move now when that (building) was really put together to fit their needs?” Bermudez said. “A lot of the employees who work there are from the Vineland area, and they spend their money in Vineland. Transportation is the other issue. This is going to hurt the people’s pockets to have to travel to another city. I think that’s something we have to look at.”
Statistics from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development show that Cumberland County’s nearly 15 percent unemployment rate in April tied it with Atlantic County for the second highest in New Jersey. The state has a 9 percent unemployment rate.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics also show that about 77 percent of Cumberland County residents ages 25 and older are high school graduates. The state average is 88 percent.
The census numbers show that only 14 percent of county residents 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That is below the state average of 35 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 in poverty, compared with 9 percent statewide.
Currently, Millville, Vineland, Bridgeton and Cumberland Regional high schools send students to the Cumberland County Technical Education Center in Deerfield Township on a part-time basis. County officials said that setup leaves students spending too much time riding buses and not enough time meeting state educational requirements.
The proposed full-time high school would be a two-story, 193,000-square-foot facility built on more than 10 acres next to the Cumberland County College campus and between Route 55 and College Drive. The building would have classrooms, a media center, cafeteria, technical laboratories, a greenhouse and a fitness center that would be open to the public.
The plan also calls for new athletic fields and parking for 630 vehicles.
State education officials said they have only seen preliminary plans for the proposed high school. Discussion regarding possible state funding will begin once the county submits its formal plans, they said.
Contact Thomas Barlas: