South Jersey perspective on regional economy
South Jersey’s economy is stagnating. This stagnation is not a new phenomenon caused by inflation or the pandemic. It is a structural problem, caused by continued neglect by various state and county elected officials and leadership.
What is desperately needed is a regional approach to economic development that focuses more on the rural economies in South Jersey. This is not to say that current efforts should be abandoned. We simply must focus on more grassroots and inclusive economic development to improve the lives of those being left behind. The following recommendations would begin the process of moving our economy in the right direction:
• Recognize our federal government presence. South Jersey is home to several important bases and facilities to include two Coast Guard bases, the FAA Tech Center, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. These facilities are large employers and critical economic engines for the region. Yet top state officials overlook these sites. More must be done. Efforts can include our state legislators working to increase funding to the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs to include more funds for lobbying the federal government on behalf of our bases. We must develop public-private partnerships with local businesses to increase employment for military spouses and families. Finally, we should exempt military pay from state income taxes as other states do.
• Create economic value from open spaces. South Jersey farms, parks and cultural sites can drive economic growth by increasing tourism, which in turn supports local businesses. The state should create a Pinelands Tourism District to market our regional parks and sites. We should focus on increasing investment in these assets. For example, let’s make Batsto Village, Atsion Mansion and the Port Republic Battlefield highly attractive to tourists. We also must include agri-tourism in these efforts.
As we drive value from open spaces, we must continue to protect and expand them. The state should expand farmland preservation funding. The legislature needs to pass the “Warehouse Development Control Bond Act (A-4257)” that provides municipalities funds to purchase potential warehouse sites in order to preserve open space. Municipalities should be provided funds to retrofit buildings in need of redevelopment into warehouses to prevent building new structures in open areas.
• Understand that workforce development is economic development. Businesses thrive in areas that have a highly trained workforce. Education is the greatest economic development incentive. First, we need to stop saying that “College is not for everyone” and instead work on preparing students for a variety of post-secondary educational options of their choice.
More of our high schools should have a CTE (Career Technical Education) program to combine academics with technical skills. One example is the CASE program. CASE is a USDA-funded education program for careers in agriculture and life sciences. It is a good fit for high schools in our region since agriculture plays such an important role in our economy.
At the depth of the Great Depression during one of his fireside chats, Franklin Roosevelt talked about the importance of building the nation’s economy from the bottom-up. He spoke of the importance of the bonds of local communities in this effort. He advocated for “economic common sense rather than politics, hot air, and pull.” The citizens responded to this call and worked to lift the United States out of a nationwide depression. We too must heed this call for economic common-sense to lead our rural communities forward.
Joseph F. Ingemi, Jr. resides with his family in Hammonton, where he works as a technology consultant and serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University. He is a US Army veteran and holds a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University. He is active in regional non-profits. The opinions expressed are strictly his own.