Op-Ed: Chasing Away NJ’s Economic Ghosts by Transforming Blight and Brownfield Sites

Elizabeth Limbrick | October 30, 2019 | Opinion
The Economic Development Authority is working with others to exorcise these ghosts, ‘especially in communities that have been passed over by developers in the past’
Elizabeth Limbrick

Communities all over New Jersey are haunted year-round by the ghosts of our economic past: vacant storefronts, abandoned strip malls, rusted-out factory buildings and contaminated landfills. These “ghosts” blight our communities and hold our economy back by occupying space and resources that could be put to a more productive use.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority is working with partners throughout state government to exorcise these ghosts from our communities once and for all. Two of the most powerful tools we have for addressing these challenges are the federal Opportunity Zone program and Gov. Phil Murphy’s brownfields-specific investment programs.

New Jersey’s Opportunity Zone strategy is focused on attracting investments in inclusive, equitable developments that promote business growth and job creation, especially in communities that have been passed over by developers in the past. The centerpiece of this strategy is the recently-launched Opportunity Zone Marketplace, an online portal designed to connect investors nationwide with business investment, real estate and community improvement projects in Opportunity Zones. The Opportunity Zone Marketplace includes a Project Marketplace featuring business and real estate project opportunities, and a network that facilitates connections among investors, developers, local leaders, project sponsors, business and property owners, and service providers. Individuals and organizations can join the statewide network, as well as local networks specific to individual municipalities.

To ensure cities are prepared to make the most of these partnerships, the authority recently launched the Opportunity Zone Challenge, a competitive grant program aimed at supporting efforts to attract investment and build capacity around economic development. The program will award five grants of up to $100,000 to select municipal or county governments to support planning and capacity-building initiatives around Opportunity Zone development.

Investing in redevelopment

New Jersey also offers an online Opportunity Zone “One-Stop Shop” with a variety of resources for municipalities, developers and community leaders, including a community asset map with data on all the 75 Opportunity Zones and guides for preparing a project pipeline and connecting shovel-ready projects with Opportunity Zone fund investors.

The state will track these programs’ effects through the Impact Measurement research initiative, a long-term analysis of Opportunity Zone communities led by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs that will examine the impact of Opportunity Zone investments on community development, business growth, employment and other key economic indicators.

Recognizing that distressed conditions in Opportunity Zones often include brownfield properties, the EDA is also driving investment in brownfield redevelopment — a critical component of smart urban planning that stimulates economic growth while cleaning up contaminated sites and minimizing the sprawl that comes with new development.

To facilitate this redevelopment, Gov. Murphy has developed a series of brownfields-specific investment programs, including an enhanced loan program administered through the EDA and a proposed expanded brownfields redevelopment tax credit. In addition to these funding resources, the EDA is also collaborating with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to expand the Community Collaborative Initiative, which embeds DEP staff in targeted cities with multiple environmental stressors to provide hands-on support as they coordinate successful remediation and redevelopment.

Getting rid of New Jersey’s economic “ghosts” won’t be as easy as putting our kids to bed after a night of trick-or-treating, but the benefits of revitalizing communities that have suffered from a lack of investment and transforming brownfield sites into productive community assets will be well worth the effort. New Jersey is leading the nation in providing the resources and support communities need to undertake these projects, and I am excited to see how leaders around the state use the tools we have provided to bring sustainable, equitable growth to our communities.