HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Questions over the county’s backing of local small businesses presented an opportunity for the freeholder board to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic response and ways the county has advocated for more reopening of the statewide economy and a lessening of the restrictions placed upon businesses by Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders over the past seven months.

Patrick Heller, the Democratic challenger in November’s election for the freeholder board seat currently occupied by Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren, asked the county board about the allocation of funding and what will be done to assist small businesses throughout Hunterdon, specifically about grants and low-interest loans being offered. Heller said that at each of his campaign stops, he’s met with the people who own, operate and work for Hunterdon County’s small businesses.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Hunterdon County, but the county’s businesses are in crisis, they’re devastated by COVID-19,” he said. “Will the freeholder board allocate any money through grants or other funds to help the small businesses as they are struggling to reopen and sustain themselves during this crisis? Or are you simply going to let them suffer?”

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The board responded with a flurry of examples of economic advocacy and planning, with some shots directed at Murphy to ease the state’s regulations.

Freeholder J. Matthew Holt said that in the early stages of the pandemic’s impacts, and especially the heavy case count and death total in New Jersey in March and April, “there was a great unknown.” But these days, seven to eight months later, there is a great “known” factor as businesses and the private sector in general are “ready, willing and able to meet whatever guidelines are provided from the state, and to do so to the best of their abilities so they can survive, provide services and keep an economy going,” he said.

“The time has come to trust and move forward, provide the guidelines and get this economic situation open so that small businesses can survive,” he said. “We are starting to stare at a total of 30 percent of small businesses that are already hit and will not survive or reopen due to the actions in Trenton, and that is a problem. We can reopen the economy smartly, safely and successfully and can be a way for businesses to be open and survive on their own without governmental assistance, or at least a minimization of it. It should be done. If the private sector is given an opportunity they will respond and they will operate smartly.”

Freeholder Zach Rich spoke about his private sector experience and noted that the state government keeping companies operating at a 25 percent capacity or with a reduced workforce present results in a negative.

“You cannot operate a business at 25 percent efficiency at any level, whether it’s a restaurant or construction firm,” he said. “Business doesn’t work that way. The private entities I know are not saying, ‘hey government, please come run my business for me and give me money.’ Instead, they are saying to the government, please get out of the way and help me keep my business running. I don’t need the government to do it for me. When we talk about this virus and shutting the economy down, we’ve seen it scattered all over so everyone has to shut down. Instead we have to adhere to guidelines, but we must figure out a way to make things happen.”

Rich said, like many in the county, he’s very thankful his children can be at school every day in a safe environment and learning, and “moving the ball forward.”      

Freeholder John Lanza said he finds it amusing that a Democratic candidate for public office in Hunterdon County comes before the freeholder board “to talk about money that the government is supposed to be giving out.” He said that when the federal government’s funding for Economic Development was supposed to trickle down to local businesses in Hunterdon, due to a Democratic official, nothing came into the county.

“Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski was voting on an act that was going to pass by voice-vote in both houses of the U.S. Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and that included Economic Development funds that would have helped small businesses,” he said. “A total of $82 million of those funds were targeted for the State of New Jersey, but guess how much we got thanks to your congressman’s efforts. Zero. Of the $82 million that was for economic development in the state, Hunterdon County got nothing because your guy was asleep at the switch. And at this point, Gov. Murphy is still sitting on $15 million in discretionary funds, but how much has Hunterdon County gotten from the governor of your party? Or from the congressman’s leadership, who was asleep at the switch for the $82 million, how much was directed for Hunterdon County where he supposedly lives? Do not come to me about not helping businesses and not securing money because where the money really is, is at the federal government level. Where the money really is would be attached to the $6 trillion in federal aid spread throughout the country as part of the CARES Act, none of which in Economic Development funds or aid Congressman Malinowski secured for our county, zero.”

Holt made reference to the Hunterdon County Economic Development office’s progress and initiatives in recent years, including this year with the promotions of the Hunterdon 579 Trail for agribusiness and farm produce, as well as a new website – HunterdonMainStreets.com – which includes a Flemington webpage and virtual tour, among the xounty’s “historic and charming destination downtowns” of Clinton and High Bridge Borough, plus the City of Lambertville, Frenchtown Borough and other Delaware River towns.