To the editor:

When I came to the county 20 years ago to help relocate a business, I learned quickly that the word “development” was a four letter word in Hunterdon. Even adding the word “Economic” to development changed few minds. Thanks to the help of a then-recently formed organization called the Hunterdon Economic Partnership or HEP, we were able to navigate the process and convert the old Cincinnati Gear facility into a productive tax parcel once again. The changes in Lebanon Borough and the region were obvious as once struggling eateries got busy and new ones blossomed. Bring 250 jobs to a region and it has an impact.

While our employee population would peak at nearly 300, no more than two employees and myself ever lived in the county. That was telling. The county was unaffordable to people who worked there, choosing instead to jump the river. When one local councilman pushed more restrictive land ordinances, it amounted to a land grab, making acres of land already highly restricted under paltry FAR formulas even less viable.

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At that time I had become the president of HEP in an effort to give back to other struggling business what was given to me. The then-Kullman Industries property along with ExxonMobil and New York Life represented the three largest taxpayers in the region, but no one wanted to hear how large businesses suffer. I showed graphs illustrating the increased tax burden that residents were taking on because of housing development without the appropriate mix of commercial and industrial development - and no one wanted to pay attention. New schools needed to be built and the influx of new residents would never end.

Reality now is much different in our county since populations are reducing and schools are emptying. Large international business have relocated their headquarters and the home in the once cherished bedroom communities are having trouble finding buyers. Businesses looking to develop in the county felt they were interlopers and unless they could thread a needle of regulations and requirements, you would be unsuccessful.

If you don’t plan and nurture your garden or even your lawn, the weeds take over. This is the challenge Hunterdon faces after years of communities believing that ignoring development was a way to avoid development.

HEP was defunded by the county Freeholders, who believed there was no need to assist businesses seeking a Hunterdon location. Now the weeds of development are strip malls and retail locations that can’t support another dress shop nor manage the traffic on the precious few main corridors.

Hunterdon County is a wonderful rural area with low density suburbs constrained by a lack of central sewage and water capacity. But that has been the appeal to the residents and business who located here. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. It is cheaper to retain customers than finding new ones and similarly, it is easier to retain business and residents than find new ones.

Before we spend a lot of effort to attract new business and residents, we should solve the problems that are sending the current ones away.

John Lefkus, Annandale