Despite a statewide economy that has slipped in the past year compared to the national economy, Mercer County was touted as one of the exceptions to the rule last Thursday at the Mercer County Economic Summit at the Friends Center on the Princeton University campus.
With a ballooning ratable base, and an increase in new businesses, the county has the "building blocks in place" to perpetuate a strong economy, said County Executive Brian Hughes, who appeared alongside keynote speaker James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. "Mercer has clearly been out-performing the state as a whole," Dean Hughes said, citing a four-and-a-half year job growth trend that is about seven times faster than the rest of the state. "Those are very impressive statistics," he said.
Much of that success, he added, is due to the growth of the Route 1 corridor, a trend that began in the 1980s. At that time New Jersey was a "non-player" in the office market economy, but by 1990, the state emerged as the fifth-largest metropolitan office market in the country, thanks, in part, to growth in and around Mercer County, Mr. Hughes said.
The Mercer County office market subsequently flourished, and increased high-paying office jobs throughout the region. One measure of this economic success, Mr. Hughes said, was the comparison of the ratio of the state's per capita income to that of the nation. In 1980, New Jersey's per capita income was 16 percent higher than the country's, but by 2000, it was 29 percent higher. "Not too shabby," Mr. Hughes said, adding that the ratio was even higher when compared to Mercer County: "If Mercer County ceded from the United States, it would become the wealthiest nation on Earth, followed closely by Luxembourg."
He went on to add that total employment in Mercer County increased 6.5 percent from 2000 to 2004, as compared to the state's 0.2 percent. In terms of private sector growth, the county gained 4.8 percent in that same time span, whereas the state's rate actually declined by 1.1 percent. "The county's economy is clearly one of New Jersey's brighter spots," Mr. Hughes said.
In addition, at the summit, County Executive Hughes (no relation to Bloustein's Dean Hughes) announced the formation of the Economic Growth Commission, a countywide initiative geared toward advising and implementing plans to attract business to the county.
Kristen Appelget, president of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, which, along with the county, helped convene the summit, said that the emphasis was on promoting the county to outside businesses and entrepreneurs, focusing on high-growth areas including mixed-use centers, arts and culture, environmental planning and urban renewal, and "Einstein's Alley" a reference to New Jersey's high-tech corridor.
In a separate session on mixed-use centers, Robert Powell, principal of Nassau HKT, the developer of Princeton Borough's downtown development project, spoke on the benefit of mixed-use planning, with storefronts lining the street level and housing units placed above. He pointed to the completed Witherspoon House next to the Princeton Public Library that places 24 housing units atop the soon-to-open Witherspoon Grill and Rouge, and the five-story building slated for the Tulane Street surface parking lot that will put a grocery store under four-stories of housing.
Approved by the Regional Planning Board nearly two years ago, construction is expected to begin for the latter project by this spring.
J. Robert Hillier of Hillier Architecture, another participant in the mixed-use session, said development such as what is being done in Princeton is necessary because, in large part, of the lack of "sprawl" space now available in Mercer County and throughout the state.
"The land that's going to be developable is diminishing and therefore, its price is going up.
"It's becoming so valuable and so expensive, that it has to warrant a greater concentration of development," he said, adding that higher density plays a part in affordable development.
Mr. Hillier, a minority owner of Town Topics, is currently a paid consultant of Princeton HealthCare System, which has decided to move its University Medical Center at Princeton and Merwick Care Center to Plainsboro. Mr. Hillier has worked with the hospital in putting together concepts for possible future development at the hospital's Witherspoon campus.
The architect related development to New Jersey's economic state as part of what could attract industry to the region. "Living has become so expensive here that employers don't want to come here because they can't afford to pay their people enough money to live here," he said, adding that those problems "could be solved through mixed-use development."
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