union county
Economic Development

Union County Flourishing on Several Counts

Rich in history, transportation, education, diversity, culture and overall economic development, 21-town county has much to offer businesses and residents.

Located in the northern New Jersey, within easy commuting distance of Manhattan, Union County could be described as a microcosm of the state in terms of diversity, landscape, top industries, and what it offers to residents. The area, which includes upscale suburbs, vibrant urban spaces, quaint downtowns, and emerging arts communities, is also a center for financial services, transportation, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals.

“With its close proximity to New York, Union County enjoys a robust metropolitan labor force, being in one of the largest markets in the nation,” says Amy Wagner, deputy county manager and director of economic development. “Regarding commerce, trade, and tourism, Union County has a containership port in Elizabeth adjacent to the Newark seaport and is located next door to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR).”

According to the 2023 Major Commercial Development Report prepared by the Union County Economic Development Corporation (UCEDC), some two dozen $1-million-plus projects have recently been completed or are underway across the county. The largest of these was a $2.7-billion redevelopment of EWR’s Elizabeth section, which included replacing Terminal A with “Terminal One,” a 1-million-square-foot, 33-gate common-use domestic terminal building with a pedestrian bridge providing direct access from the EWR AirTrain and a public parking facility. 

Done in two phases and completed in 2023, the new Terminal A served 15 million passengers in its first year of operation – 5 million more than in any year of EWR’s 50-year history. Terminal A has become a major driver of the regional economy, creating 2,500 direct jobs and having an economic impact of $4.6 billion across the region. 

“It’s a state-of-the-art terminal and a nice, welcoming space that’s in close proximity to Manhattan and busy cities like Newark and Jersey City,” Wagner says. Other notable projects around Union County include:

  • The $550-million redevelopment of the former General Motors plant in Linden, which will be transformed into 36 acres of retail space and about 59 acres for industrial and warehousing – creating about 2,400 jobs. Seventy-five percent of the property has already been redeveloped and a new hotel is under construction.
  • Development of Connell Company’s 185-acre business campus in Berkeley Heights, which is valued at $400 million and will include multi-family rental residential housing (328 units) with an inclusionary affordable housing component, as well as retail, which will include supermarkets, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
  • L’Oreal’s new Research and Development Center in Clark, a 240,000-square-foot building on an 11-acre site valued at $200 million.
  • A two-phase, $140-million redevelopment of the former site of Sullivan Chevrolet in Roselle Park, with Phase I including 325 residential spaces (one-and two-bedroom units) with 16,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level, and Phase II yielding 16 affordable residential units.
  • Five projects in Plainfield ranging from $3.5 million to $5 million, mostly mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with housing and retail spaces. 

This busy pace of development can be largely attributed to the county’s skilled workforce and a vast transportation network that not only includes the airport and port facilities, but 11 major highways (the Garden State Parkway, NJ Turnpike and I-78 among them), 25 bus routes, passenger and freight railways, shuttle services, and bicycle trails. 

A Fabric Woven from History and Culture

Union County is also notable for its historical significance, even before the county was named in 1857. The industrial city of Elizabeth, the port of entry and first seat of New Jersey government, was one of the oldest and most important colonial settlements in New Jersey and the site of many significant events during the Revolutionary War. Union County later became a hotbed of scientific innovation, being the site of Thomas Edison’s experiments on the electric lightbulb (1880s) and Guglielmo Marconi’s breakthroughs in wireless communication (early 1900s). 

This rich history is complemented by the variety of cultures represented across the area. Almost 31% of Union County residents were born outside the US, compared to the national average of 13.6% and the New Jersey average of 22.7%. “We are incredibly diverse, not only from an ethnic standpoint, but socio-economically, with communities that range from affluent suburbs to major cities,” Wagner says. “There are so many opportunities to learn about other cultures – their traditions and food. In fact, I don’t think there’s any type of restaurant in existence you couldn’t find in one of our 21 towns.”

Education a Major County Focus 

Education is at the center of life in Union County, both in terms of employment – education services is one of the county’s Top 3 industries, employing more than 28,000 people – and the continued growth of the county’s higher education institutions. For example, Kean University, New Jersey’s urban research university and an anchor institution for the region, employs more than 2,000 full-time and part-time faculty and staff, many of whom live in Union County. The university is actively developing the region and the state as a hub for technology, entrepreneurship and innovation through research and grants as well as the Institute for Life Science Entrepreneurship housed at Kean, which has partnered with the county on grants and serves as a business and research incubator for life science startups in the region.

Cultural events offered through the University Galleries, Kean Stage and Premiere Stages draw community members to the Union campus and are economic drivers for surrounding businesses. 

“Our students also know the university’s thriving campus reflects the diversity and energy of the county, and many students – and staff – choose to live in the county’s walkable small towns and vibrant cities,” says Margaret McCorry, Kean’s associate vice president for university relations. “From their experiences at Kean, students come to know Union County has opportunities to offer in almost every field, including STEM, healthcare, education, the arts, and more.”

The county also has a major success story in Union College of Union County (UCNJ), which was named one of the nation’s Top 25 community colleges in 2023 by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. UCNJ has approximately 80 associate degree and certificate programs, as well as non-credit offerings such as continuing education and workforce development. The college is a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution whose diverse student body is made up of almost 75% historically underrepresented minorities.

UCNJ also works with county-based employers through clinical affiliations, internships, and recruitment, as well as with organizations such as the: New Jersey Business and Industry Association and the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, which have partnered on the Pathways to Careers Opportunities training initiative; Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce; Gateway Chamber of Commerce; and the Port Authority of NY/NJ’s Council on Port Performance – all for insight into labor market needs, current and future job skills, and employment opportunities. In addition, the college has received a $3 million grant over a five-year period from the U.S. Department of Education to prepare students for career success, as well as $2.9 million over five years to expand experiential learning for students in business, education, and graphic design programs. 

“Under the leadership of President Margaret M. McMenamin, UCNJ provides students with experiential learning opportunities and destination venues, including a Bloomberg Business Center, Innovation Center, Radio and Podcasting Center, and Student Research Hub to strengthen career and transfer pathways for our students,” says Bernard A. Polnariev, Ph.D, UCNJ’s vice president for administrative services. “Based on a 2023 study led by Lightcast, the college produced an economic impact of $408.6 million in added income to the county and supported more than 4,700 jobs.”

Union County Arts Community Flourishing

Union County – and Rahway, in particular – has also become a center for the arts with the rise of the Rahway Arts district and its galleries featuring local and international artists; the state-of-the-art Hamilton Stage for the Performing Arts that hosts top dance and theatre companies; and the Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), a restored 1,300-seat Golden Age theater with residencies like the American Theater Group. 

“Our goal is to make Rahway and Union County a thriving hub for the performing arts, where people of all backgrounds can come together to enjoy the magic of live performance,” Executive Director Deanna Hunt says. 

Other UCPAC productions have included performances by the New Jersey Opera Theater, whose founder/artistic director, Joseph Mayon, works with local high school and college students by having them join the professional musicians in the orchestra or chorus, or as understudies for lead roles. In addition, the Union County Board of Commissioners offers scholarships for the UCPAC Summer Theater Camp, which provides kids ages 8 to 18 training and mentorship.

“Our collaboration with Union County and the City of Rahway, in addition to relationships with local organizations and businesses, strengthen Union County’s identity as a supportive and interconnected community,” Hunt says. “Ultimately, by offering a diverse array of programming, fostering talent development, and collaborating with local partners, UCPAC is playing a pivotal role in positioning Union County as a dynamic center for the arts.”

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