PISCATAWAY, NJ - A newly sworn in Democrat governor and an arguably hectic presidential administration.
And the cherry on top: Gov. Phil Murphy, in his inauguration speech, confirmed the existence of Central Jersey.
How does that bode for Middlesex County?
Ask James Hughes, a professor and dean emeritus at the Bloustein School at Rutgers University and an expert in planning and public policy.
He says it’s a mixed bag of results, according to his presentation at the Middlesex County 2018 Summit, on Jan. 23 at the Rutgers Visitor Center in Piscataway.
Six elements have rocked the county, Hughes said, and depending on how you spin it, work for or against Middlesex.
Hughes listed them out at the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast, which brought in business leaders from across the county.
There are changing demographics, a push towards digital information technology, a reduction in the suburban workforce, migration towards urban workplaces and the adoption of online e-commerce.
With Middlesex, the county has been spared from the population decline or stagnation that’s impacted the edges of the New York metro area, namely Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon and Monmouth counties.
Some areas, despite escaping the decline, haven’t fared much better. Take Somerset County, which in recent years has seen its population growth rate plateau, Hughes said.
Ultimately, that might be enough to scare away potential employers- which Middlesex County can prep itself to catch.
“Many firms in Somerset County, which have open engineering jobs, planning jobs, they can’t fill them,” Hughes said. “Millennials don’t want to live in Somerset County.”
Rather, the push has been towards urban-centered worksites and places of living. Hughes highlighted Prudential’s old office park in South Plainfield, just off Interstate 287.
The site, which opened in the 1970s amidst the so-called “white flight” and migration of jobs and money out of urban centers, has recently sat empty.
“This was once one of the centerpieces of Prudential's 20th century suburban growth strategy, but a post-suburban economic era is unfolding,” Hughes said.
Indeed, Prudential’s new office building in Newark has breathed revival into the downtown evident with the ongoing gentrification along Broad and Halsey streets
That trend has been a major plus for urbanized and densely populated counties, Hughes said. With skyrocketing rent pricing businesses and tenants out of New York City, and a millennial generation migrating towards urban environments, population centers like Newark and New Brunswick have stepped up to the plate, Hughes said.
New Brunswick certainly stands to gain from Amazon’s interest in Newark as the site of its HQ2, Hughes said, despite the Hub City being overlooked by the online retail giant as a possible location for its second mega-headquarters in the U.S.
“It’s entirely possible that Amazon could have multiple buildings in multiple locations,” Hughes said. “They could have maybe their super headquarters in Hudson Yards (in New York), but they have other research facilities in other locations.”
The rail line running through Middlesex County is also a tremendous boost. The Northeast Corridor, according to Hughes, provides access to Yale University in New Haven, Columbia University in Manhattan, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“There’s no place else in the country like this,” Hughes said.
That skilled and educated workforce, or as Hughes described it, “advances in digital information technology,” marks something else going well for Middlesex County and the state as a whole.
"There are so many pieces to the puzzle when it comes to continuing a successful and robust economic landscape here in Middlesex County," said Lina Llona, president, Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We look to leaders like Jim Hughes for providing a big picture policy perspective so we can take his insights and act locally," she added.
"As Dean Hughes said, Central Jersey was once New Jersey's middle child, but it has emerged as the New Jersey's hub for economic activity and population growth. Central Jersey, and particularly Middlesex County, are well positioned for economic vibrancy in a 21st century New Jersey."
But even without direct centers of employment in Middlesex County, the region still stands to benefit from the byproducts of being in such close proximity to Manhattan.
“Clearly one of the national growth locomotives is New York City, we capture the spillover from that, and we have on the one hand 425,000 New Jerseyans who work in New York, but live here,” Hughes said.
Moreover, Hughes added, many of these businesses, with their headquarters in New York City, still have offices across New Jersey which do back-end work.
New Brunswick, and the state as a whole, have been historically known to under-appreciate their arts and tourism sectors, he said.
Certainly, there have been reversals in those trends: construction is well underway for the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC), a 22-story, $172 million project on Livingston Avenue
Once completed, NBPAC will be the home of the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatres, as well as the American Repertory Ballet and a detachment of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
To some extent, much of New Jersey’s tourism, that stemming from the Jersey Shore, was decimated in the wake of Superstorm Sandyin October 2012 and took years to recover.
Yet other aspects of potential tourism, Hughes said, simply haven’t been appreciated.
“New Jersey’s done an abysmal job on a statewide basis in terms of promoting tourism,” Hughes said. “With the Revolutionary War, this is the cradle of the American Revolution, and most New Jerseyan's don’t even know that and know the assets we have here.”