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Op-Ed: Resurrecting New Jersey’s Economy

Meaningful economic revival must prioritize New Jersey’s urban communities, or the state’s economy, as a whole, will continue falter

Baye Adofo-Wilson
Baye Adofo-Wilson

New Jersey’s economy was obviously not a priority of the red-vote-state-chasing previous administration, leaving it mostly to fend for itself. With a strong national economy and new progressive leadership, New Jersey is now in a position to experience significant economic growth — the type of growth that can bolster the state’s economy for a generation. But for that to happen, New Jersey will need to prioritize its urban communities, or New Jersey’s economy, as a whole, will continue to falter.

New Jersey has assets other states envy, including a highly competitive public education system, a smart adult population, a diverse demographic, and the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, New Jersey also has one of the highest housing-foreclosure rates in the country. New Jersey is ranked the least fiscally sound state, the number one exporter of high school graduates, college graduates and senior citizens. Building a bridge between New Jersey’s urban assets and the state’s economic challenges is the connection necessary for resurrecting New Jersey’s economy.

The Brookings Institute’s Senior Fellow John Austin argues that local and state governments should pursue economically dynamic, asset-based strategies as mechanisms to grow the economies. Developing an economic development strategy that focuses on the multiple assets of a city can lead to a recovery from a previous, manufacturing company town, helping to bring back the town and the region.

New Jersey does not have cities with the size or breadth of Baltimore, Chicago, or Minneapolis. New Jersey’s cities are geographically and demographically much smaller, yet still, they are asset rich, including public transportation systems, educational and healthcare facilities, waterfront properties, entertainment venues, government services, affordable and market-rate housing, and ethnically diverse populations — all the amenities you find in larger urban cities. These urban areas were New Jersey’s economic backbone in the mid-20 century when the state’s economy was thriving, but now play a much more marginal role due to the reduced manufacturing sector, suburbanization, and racism. Urban redevelopment is critical to the state’s economy and there are a few policies, I believe, that can assist these cities grow and structurally improve the State’s economy:

  • Expand the technology, health, and life-services sectors in urban New Jersey. New Jersey is ripe for an expansion of the technology, health, and life-services sectors because of its educational institutions, the existing New Jersey firms, and its demographics. New Jersey needs these businesses in their urban centers to help maximize the jobs impact on the state’s economy. However, these businesses need to be sufficiently incentivized for expansion and/or relocation. The New Jersey EDA has the Grow New Jersey program, which is a solid program providing subsidies of $5,000 per job. As we can see from the Amazon HQ2 New Jersey legislation, New Jersey can be more aggressive with its incentive packages, providing up to $10,000 per job for Amazon HQ2. Whether Newark wins or loses the Amazon HQ2 award, New Jersey should maintain the higher tax-credit award for technology, health, and life-services companies relocating to urban New Jersey. Implementing a program that retains the Amazon HQ2 proposal ambition, and deploys those resources throughout urban New Jersey, can create the type of excitement and interest in New Jersey for technology, health, and life services that will not only solidify New Jersey’s position as a national leader, but also propel it towards global leadership.

  • Build more affordable, market-rate and senior citizen housing. New Jersey can reduce the high cost of housing in urban areas, attract more people to urban communities, and make urban centers stronger participants in the state’s economy by developing a strategy that reduces housing development overall costs. There are at least 20,000 vacant and abandoned properties in urban New Jersey. The state should develop and implement a program that connects those vacant and abandoned properties to the estimated 150,000 affordable-housing units required by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent Mount Laurel decision. The state could develop a statewide land trust, and the municipalities could use the land as a development subsidy, with the requirement that the eventual leasing or sale price of the units built on these vacant and abandoned properties be capped and subject to rent control. These restrictions should be done regardless, if the units built are low-income, moderate-income, market-rate, or senior citizens housing. The overall increase in affordable-housing units in urban New Jersey will create the density necessary to make these areas more dynamic, attractive, and engaging for people throughout their regions. They will also help make these blighted areas feel safer.

  • Preserve New Jersey’s urban natural assets. New Jersey is built by water, especially the Delaware, Passaic, and Raritan Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Designing a statewide strategy to develop and preserve waterfront properties for open space in urban New Jersey will produce an additional amenity within these cities for relaxation, recreation, events, programs, and fun. Redeveloping waterfronts may also increase tax revenue around these waterfronts post-redevelopment. Most waterfront urban sites are brownfields and need remediation.

New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has the Green Acres program, which manages open-space acquisitions and preservation. DEP has the environmental clean-up programs. Developing a team focusing on urban waterfront open-space development and preservation can accelerate the redevelopment of urban New Jersey, creating an amenity for the local residents and leveraging arguably the most important natural asset in New Jersey.

The New Jersey economy has been slow to recover from the Great Recession, leaving homeowners, high school and college graduates and senior citizens searching for a more suitable place to live. The new progressive state leadership has many options to improving the state’s economy, but choosing an economic-recovery strategy that runs through urban New Jersey will strengthen the state’s economic foundation and build upon the state’s most important assets — water, land, and, of course, its people.

Baye Adofo-Wilson is the former deputy mayor of Newark.

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