At an unveiling of a new economic development strategic plan for Atlantic County yesterday, hundreds of area business owners, educators, government officials and residents showed up to see what hope lies on the horizon for economic turnaround. Widely publicized casino closings left the county battling a poverty rate estimated at 15% today, unemployment at 9.1% and a home value decline of 20%. Hope and a battle plan are greatly needed.
It was inspiring to see so many faces representing virtually every major segment of the Atlantic County community listening with rapt attention to the first ever regional plan for economic development. The plan is based on correcting two primary issues – decades of reliance on casinos as the only game in town, and a lack of any regional economic development organization working to coordinate and promote the area. Cities and towns in New Jersey in the past have mostly relied on the state to supply leads for new industries and marketing. That doesn’t work; economic development is a local activity. No one can rely on the state to be aware of everything going on within each of its 21 counties and 565 municipalities.
Buena Vista Township Major Chuck Chiarello was front and center at yesterday’s regional strategic plan rollout. He wants every tool he can find to help turn the western edge of the county into a destination haven for tourists. Economic development in his area can be tricky. A large part of Buena Vista Township sits in the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, a protected natural area classified as a United States Biosphere Reserve. Finding ways to expand businesses within those restrictions is challenging, to say the least. Chiarello recently met with two local manufacturing companies planning to leave in search of a better business environment. The mayor has been working hard with those companies to help them find ways to thrive in their own home town. His efforts seem to be paying off. One company has decided to stay in Buena Vista Township. The other is reconsidering its move.
“It makes a difference when you show up at someone’s office and say, ‘We appreciate you being a part of our community. What can we do to make things easier – make it easier for you to grow and be successful?’ We should be doing that with every business in Atlantic County.”
Every region in the U.S. needs more Mayor Chiarellos.
Atlantic County stakeholders are focused on rolling up their sleeves and forging a new path to economic prosperity. What now remains to be seen, is what the business community in Atlantic County does with the regional strategic plan. How quickly and effectively can they rally support and help fund the critically needed Atlantic County Economic Development Corporation?
This is a tenacious, hard-working community with strong business owners that have rallied from setbacks before. All bets are in their corner and all eyes should be on Atlantic County as a future best practice for reinvention and recovery.