Economist Richard Perniciaro was a twentysomething who was already a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and to him there was just one thing that was important when he started looking for jobs.

"I took out a map, and said, 'Wow, there's a lot of water down there. That could work,'" he said.

So the native New Yorker made the move to South Jersey in the late 1970s.

His new job teaching economics at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey wasn't intended to become permanent. But the second oldest of five boys raised on Long Island with sand in his shoes soon was loving South Jersey living. There were, of course, a few things that would take some getting used to. The assimilation process started with his first trip to Stockton, he recalled recently.

"It was the first time I was ever south of Exit 74 on the parkway. Going over the Mullica River, I thought I was going off the end of the earth," he said describing his jarring experience exiting from the highway and a subsequent wrong turn toward Port Republic.

"The first thing I saw was a hunting lodge with a deer hanging upside down. I figured this is 'Deliverance.' I'm never getting back to New York," he said. "I said I'd be down here a couple of years. Now it's 35 years later."

Perniciaro, 61, is the director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, where he's worked since 1999. He leads economic impact studies for school districts, government entities and private companies. He predicts growth patterns - what works and what's likely to fail, what's likely to help the region and what's likely to hurt it. It's a job that's left the Pleasantville resident familiar with being the "middle man" - the guy who could be blamed if it all falls apart.

He's still the only one of the five boys in his family to venture west of the Hudson River, and he's heard many New Jersey jokes over the years. But, Perniciaro said, you have to be ready for criticism in his line of work.

"I've had people put their finger on my chest and say, 'You know, if you're wrong with this, can we come find you?' If they build these things because of a study that wasn't right, then it's a waste of money," he said. "You have to be comfortable being in the middle sometimes. You have to try to be as unbiased as you can."

His strong leadership style, according to College President Peter Mora, also has led him to a less likely role as the college's dean of facilities, planning and research, responsible for everything from facility management to the long-term planning and student research. The college is now undertaking the most building it's done in its history.

"He's one of the best higher education leaders I've ever had a chance to work with. … Externally is where he's a real star. He's comfortable with leaders outside of academics, and he has an ability to make really complex issues easy to understand," Mora said. "He has no weakness. He's the real deal."

As Perniciaro said, he truly loves his work, and separating him from his job is difficult. Unafraid to be critical, he said he knows he stands apart from other researchers in part, he imagines, because he turns work down particularly when he doesn't believe he'll be able to produce a report with the desired outcome.

He said he was one of the first to be asked by an Internet gambling company to produce a study on the impacts online betting would have on Atlantic City - something he steadfastly believes won't be a good thing for the resort. After he began asking critical questions, the company was no longer sure it wanted his services, he said. The two parted ways.

"Let's face it. This is a showbiz area. It's always had state decisions made for it in a way. It's not an area that thrives on research," he said. "There are just some things they'd rather not know. … In that way, it's frustrating a little bit."

Still, that frustration is nothing a little time on water can't cure. Unhappiest cooped up inside, Perniciaro would almost always prefer to be in the sunshine and on his boat, the Long Weekend, which he keeps docked in Somers Point. He and his 27-year-old son, Andrew, who named the boat after his dad's good fortune of three-day weekends in the summer, often go fishing and restaurant hopping, he said.

"It's a way to get away from it all. Just go out on the ocean and just say the heck with it all," he said.

A love of boating is something he shares with his former-student-turned-friend Max Slusher. Perniciaro was Slusher's economics professor at Stockton in the early 1980s. The two later worked together consulting and became friends.

"There's no pretension with him. He is absolutely one of the brightest people you'll meet, but you wouldn't know it right away. That's the way he was trained," said Slusher, who is the executive director of institutional effectiveness and research at Burlington County College.

Bright as he might be academically, however, Slusher jokes that Perniciaro's luck when fishing leaves something to be desired. He has nicknamed his friend Richie "Red Tide" Perniciaro in honor of the dead zone that always seems to develop wherever he drops the anchor.

"An absolute dead zone, that's what it is. In three to five years, I've caught one fish with him. One," Slusher said. "The law of probability would require we find at least two."

While his less-than-successful fishing career might be a laughing matter, it was a serious turn of events that led Perniciaro to take to the sea.

It was Sept. 11, 2001, when Perniciaro was in New York City for the annual convention of the National Association of Business Economists. The meeting was held at the Marriott World Trade Center, and it would leave Perniciaro ducking under an awning outside of the Twin Towers as the debris began to fall after the first plane struck.

Around the corner at World Financial Center, an interaction with a man in his 70s searching for his wife stuck with Perniciaro. The man's phone wouldn't work and his wife had been on the 90th story of the North Tower. He was struggling to dial his phone as they saw another plane strike the South Tower.

Perniciaro was in a daze. The worst he had lost, however, was his car. Running late and planning to drive back to Atlantic City International Airport for an afternoon meeting, he'd left the car in a surface parking lot across from the towers. When he returned to look at the car, the door was open and a wire conductor had crashed through the windshield.

"People don't really understand. You heard the planes, but you could also hear people jumping out of buildings. The sounds were really horrifying," said Perniciaro, who said he only reluctantly returns to New York these days.

"It's a lesson. People woke up that day and had no idea what they were in for," he said."The first thing I did was buy a boat. It was time to do some things you can't put off forever."

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

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