Middlesex County could be called the “epicenter” of New Jersey, situated midway between New York and Philadelphia and serviced by nearly every north/south rail and roadway. Its 322 square miles stretch from the Rahway River south to Mercer and Monmouth counties, and from Raritan Bay on the Atlantic Ocean west to Somerset County, encompassing everything from quiet rural towns like Cranbury, to vibrant city centers like New Brunswick, to waterfront communities like Perth Amboy.
It’s qualities like these that make New Jersey’s second most populous county attractive to businesses, large and small, says Lina Llona, president of the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureau in New Brunswick. “The average age for a county resident is 39, and the population is diverse and well-educated,” she says. “It’s a good location for companies to come in and expand. We have the workforce and the transportation to get them in and out.”
Thanks to some major collaborative efforts, Middlesex County is also establishing itself as a center for medical, academic and business innovation, with New Brunswick-based projects like the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (RCINJ) Cancer Pavilion, New Jersey’s only National Cancer Institute designated cancer center, and the New Jersey Innovation and Technology Hub, a mixed-use space for medical research, emerging technology and business startup incubation – both newly under construction and set to open in 2024. There is also significant commercial development and construction in East Brunswick, including FedEx’s new 500,000-square-foot warehouse to address supply chain demand that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Heritage Pharmaceutical Company, a manufacturer of generic pharmaceuticals, doubling the footprint of its Harts Lane facility.
One of the industries seeing the greatest expansion in Middlesex County is life sciences, with multinational companies conducting research & development at Princeton Corporate Plaza in South Brunswick and Cedar Brook Corporate Center in Cranbury; the NJ Bioscience Center supporting emerging businesses; and a steady pipeline of talent from Rutgers University, Middlesex College and the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High Schools continuing to fuel sector growth. The county has also gained national prominence for food innovation and autonomous technology, with incubators such as the Rutgers Food Innovation Center and the nation’s first urban smart mobility testing ground scheduled to debut this year.
“Middlesex County has developed a reputation for having a robust workforce, including more employees in life sciences like pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical device manufacturing than any other New Jersey county,” says Sandy Castor, director of the Middlesex County Office of Business Engagement, which was created to assist businesses moving to or expanding in the county. “With the support of the Board of County Commissioners, we are investing millions of dollars in attracting new businesses to relocate, start up, or expand to the county. The strategy includes an advertising campaign in targeted areas, including Pittsburgh, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Delaware.”
The county’s central location – near Newark Airport, just under an hour from New York City and just over an hour from Philadelphia by car, and a three-hour Amtrak ride from Washington, D.C. – is a big plus. But even more of a draw is the workforce, says Chris Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), whose RCINJ and Hub development projects are huge potential employers in the region.
“The reason companies are founded, relocate and grow, is access to talent, and 10,000 Rutgers University graduates churned out each year in everything from physics and food sciences to environmental science and chemistry is an extraordinary asset,” Paladino says. “Plus, New Jersey has more engineers, Ph.Ds. and research scientists per capita than any other state in the country, and the vast majority of them live in or near Middlesex County.”
To support the influx of new businesses, the county will soon break ground on the North Brunswick Train Station, a $50-million project that will provide a much-needed stop between Princeton Junction and Jersey Avenue in New Brunswick, and will include a “Transit Village” with a Panera Bread, Target and Costco. Owned by Amtrak, this line provides the most frequent service to and from New York City and will help fuel the regional economy.
“This is not only a solution to the longest span without a stop on the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey, but the new station will also bring relief to one of the state’s busiest rail lines, reduce traffic on Route 1, and attract new revenue, visitors and residents to the region,” Castor says.
Development of the North Brunswick Train Station is consistent with Destination 2040, the county’s strategy to promote opportunities in education, healthcare, technology and private businesses, as well as support the arts, culture and healthy living for Middlesex County residents. This includes making downtown New Brunswick a center for the arts with the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC), an investment of more than $170 million that includes two state-of-the-art theatres and collaborative workspaces for arts organizations across the region; and the State Theatre New Jersey, which is going through a $26.5-million renovation partially funded by Middlesex County with a $12-million grant from the Middlesex County Arts and Cultural Trust Fund. The State Theatre has an economic impact of approximately $18 million annually on the region and is one of the largest employers in the arts and culture sector.
Destination 2040 is also about offering a high quality of life through outdoor spaces, including more than 11,000 acres of parks and conservation areas with ball fields, playgrounds, pickleball and tennis courts, picnic areas, jogging paths and hiking trails. The county also continues to invest in its amenities, awarding a grant of $1.5 million to the City of South Amboy in May for improvements and development at the Allie Clark Athletic Field complex. Funding was allocated from the county’s Open Space Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
“Efforts around Destination 2040 will help drive economic development in our county, making it a thriving, attractive destination to live, work and play for generations to come and will attract new residents, businesses and visitors to sustain our future,” says Ronald G. Rios, director of the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners.
Also supporting Destination 2040 is Middlesex College (formerly known as Middlesex County College), particularly in the area of economic development and workforce competitiveness. Middlesex College, working with local businesses to help fill their entry-level positions and upskill their current workforce, recently offered a customized curriculum in electromechanical training for employees at Silver Line Building Products in North Brunswick. The school also works with non-profit and community-based organizations to provide training funded through local and state grants.
Of course, like most of the nation, Middlesex County’s economy suffered at the hands of COVID-19, with small businesses and the hospitality industry reeling with the absence of more than 50,000 students from Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus. According to Llona, small businesses from Metuchen to Highland Park struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, with many taking advantage of the $30-million grant program provided by the county, among other government bailouts. However, with the easing of restrictions comes an opportunity for rebirth and growth in this vibrant county.
“People are starting to go out and eat out, and hotels are starting to get requests for meetings and social events,” she says. “I think there’s a lot in the pipeline, a lot happening. There are a lot of people to place into jobs, and we have the means to get them here.”
Even with all the big projects underway in Middlesex County, Llona says it is small business growth that can be the most inspiring. The week she was interviewed for this story, she had been to two ribbon cuttings – one for Jewelry Design Lab in Piscataway, a second location for this particular owner, and the other for the opening of the Eyet Law firm in New Brunswick.
“To me, these are the signs of life we are looking for, and when the kids come back to Rutgers in the fall, the whole surrounding area will benefit,” she says. “The long-term outlook is very good. It was good before the pandemic, and it will be good again.”
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