HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - With the December holidays fast-approaching, county officials took time to reflect on multiple opportunities and operations that serve the public and general vitality of Hunterdon County residents, first responders and local businesses.

During a recent freeholder board meeting, freeholder J. Matthew Holt spoke about upcoming economic development initiatives and programs that will aim at a boost in “shopping local,” whether that is supporting local merchants and establishments in-person or through online and phone retail and placing orders. Hunterdon County’s Office of Economic Development has worked with several local business promotion organizations, including the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce, as methods of helping small businesses countywide have been implemented throughout the year.

Over the past few months and thanks to new resources, Holt said, he has seen a great spark in interest in county-based retail options – particularly places to buy high-quality food and produce – as the pandemic has shifted many consumers’ behavior, and as delivery services offering non-local products such as Amazon have impacted the market in recent years. A prime example is the new and interactive Hunterdon579Trail.com, as people who may have turned to big-name grocery and wholesale stores are learning about what’s offered at many local farms and markets in Hunterdon County, an area of the Northeast U.S. particularly rich in “agribusiness.”

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“It should be noted that the next round of promotions is for the holiday season, and opportunities along the 579 Trail and our county’s farms, farm markets and vineyards,” Holt said. “This will be showcased initially through the website, as there’s great tourism and destination-planning opportunities online. This is a great tool, even for Hunterdon residents as this website developed. It astounds me how many residents who live within 5, 10 or 25 miles from the 579 Trail did not know of the many businesses along it and all the goods and items they can acquire locally.”

Hunterdon579Trail.com features more than 50 site businesses located just a few miles in each direction of County Route 579. Flemington area listings include the Stangl Farm Market and the Hunterdon Land Trust’s outdoor farmers’ market, held (socially-distanced) at Dvoor Farmstead, on Mine Street.

Holt said economic vitality for such county agribusinesses through the pandemic is tied to the increased need for county residents to find local and convenient sources for food supplies, “that are essentially close to home, safe and supporting their local community.”

“I want to give credit and thanks to County Economic Development Director Marc Saluk as the 579 Trail initiative has taken off, and, with the holidays upon us, so has the business promotions for downtowns, HunterdonMainStreets.com, as I think it will have the same success ahead,” Holt said.

Another goal he outlined is fostering productive dialogues and relationships with environmental organizations operating in the county. In November, Holt met with leadership from the Musconetcong Watershed Association, a local advocacy nonprofit.

“We had an opportunity to tie together open space preservation, water quality, overall quality of life factors as well as goals for the sustainable economy we are trying to drive in Hunterdon County,” he said. “Certainly there is consensus for the idea that all of those things, when done correctly, increase both quality of life value and property values as well.”

He added that on Nov. 16, he engaged with the Highlands Council to update them on what work is taking place, including the countywide Commercial Properties survey/study near major transportation routes.

“Again, we are working in conjunction with them on the preservation and quality of Hunterdon County’s water resources, and, at the same time, recognizing that we can do so while simultaneously supporting a healthy and sustainable economy in the county,” he said.   

Holt also announced a recent honor for Hunterdon County’s 911 dispatch team, recognized by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials/APCO International, the world’s largest and oldest organization of public safety professionals.

“They were recognized for their continued dedication and for all their exceptional service during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Holt said the trickle down of such professionals is in serving the general public as a whole. In telecommunications and dispatch, APCO provides expertise, technical assistance, outreach, advocacy and professional development.  

“Every 911 and communications staff member in Hunterdon was given a challenge point and note of congratulations from APCO, and we’ll place this into each of their personnel files,” he said. “The dedication and efforts of our communications unit stretches far beyond the pandemic, over the last nine to 10 months, as it comprises years of dedication, as this team cannot work remotely and equipment doesn’t move home with them. They always show up and the public depends on them, and all of them have dealt with the quarantine requirements as necessary, as essentially our public safety would be significantly compromised if COVID-19 ran through our emergency communications ranks. They have to be on the job 24-7-365."

He thanked division head Jim Curry and county public safety director George Wagner and all communications center staff members for their recognition.

Also related to COVID costs and work done, freeholder director Shaun C. Van Doren announced that Hunterdon is seeking reimbursement for expenses related to “continuity of government/technology costs associated with establishing a remote county workforce in the spring.” The same application is to reimburse an increase to funds expended on public health nursing and temporary county health department employees necessary for increased contact-tracing and COVID-19 testing, “and the implementation of health protocols.”

Van Doren thanked county staff, and especially county Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Coordinator Brayden Fahey for compiling and submitting a Local Government Emergency Fund application for the $316,000 C.A.R.E.S. Act grant, prior to the deadline of Nov. 10.

“These additional costs would not have been necessary, except for the public health emergency and the establishment of a remote county workforce was vital to ensure that Hunterdon County continued to serve the public even as our public buildings had to be closed,” Van Doren said. “I am advised that our staff has a high degree of confidence that the county will receive the full reimbursement from the state.”

Deputy director Sue Soloway also provided an update on the state of the Code Blue program, which she said brought some “encouraging news” in mid-November from the New Jersey state level.

At previous meetings, Code Blue planning was detailed as Hunterdon County has a new provider services contract with Hunterdon Helpline for the provision of a “Code Blue Warming Center” for the period of Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2021, with $29,640 in funding allocated. Changes to state legislation “moved Code Blue declarations from 25 degrees to 32 degrees” to provide shelters on freezing nights.

In October, Soloway explained that the county stepped in to help “because it defrays the cost for the 26 municipalities to pay for shelter.”

The partnership with Hunterdon Helpline not only aligns in the organizational mission of “protecting those who are most vulnerable as part of the county and municipal shared service, but Hunterdon Helpline will also make available its wrap-around social services to aid the chronic homeless in an effort to move those persons to a better life position,” she said.

At the November meeting, Soloway put the social services/public safety responsibilities of various levels of New Jersey government – state, county and down to the municipal level – in perspective, just as temperatures decrease for winter.

“The state is finally taking some responsibility for the Code Blue Warming Centers for the homeless program,” she said. “The state’s division of  Department of Human Services has notified Hunterdon County that a $50,000 grant is available to help support local Code Blue efforts. The county has worked to provide Code Blue warming center services as a shared service throughout the county, after a mandate requiring all municipalities to provide these services. The county’s approach creates a greater economy-of-scale with this program. The freeholder board joins in calling for the state to take some of the financial responsibilities for this mandate away from municipalities to provide warming centers.”

She added that after a great deal of effort and time by the county government, “local officials from all over the state are finally realizing the state’s responsibility.”