After nearly six years of having to report grim news in his annual State of the County address, County Executive Tom DeGise looked relieved on Feb. 27 when he told the Board of Freeholders things were finally looking up.
Unemployment was down, development was on the way up, and prospects for a revival in Hudson County were not only possible but already underway, so that people living in one of the most densely counties in the nation would begin seeing positive changes.
Not all the news DeGise, had to report, however, was positive. The county’s hope for the sale of Kopper’s Koke property in Kearny – a critical piece in boosting county finances – had been once against dashed by powers beyond the county’s ability to control.
Each time the county was poised to sell the one-time contaminated site, hopes were dashed. This was true again over the last year as rumors of a NJ Transit take over of the property chased away potential private developers.
Throwing the gauntlet down, DeGise said NJ Transit should either take over the property or make it available for private development.
“It appears Hudson County’s economy is very close to blooming again,” he said. “Unemployment in Hudson County has dropped dramatically in the last year. Since January of 2013, the county unemployment rate has fallen from 10.9 percent to 7.4 percent as measured by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 4,000 Hudson County residents have jobs.”
“Perhaps the surest sign that our local economy is picking up steam is the good news about housing starts.” – Tom DeGise
“Since county unemployment peaked in July of 2009 at 11.4 percent, it hovered stubbornly near 11 percent for more than three years. Now in just the last year, it has fallen more than three percent,” DeGise said.
Real wage growth, which had been similarly stagnant since the depths of the recession in 2009, also improved in the last year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, county wage growth, which had declined annually for two straight years, jumped by 2.2 percent in the first half of 2013, the most recent period from which published data was available.
“Perhaps the surest sign that our local economy is picking up steam is the good news about housing starts,” DeGise said.
Hudson led the state in permits for new housing construction in 2013 with nearly 3,500. Jersey City was the number one municipality in the state with more than 1,600 new permits in 2013, but growth was also evident throughout the county. In the month of December, Secaucus led all Hudson municipalities with 106 permit authorizations.
“Hudson County is clearly growing again,” DeGise said. “And that is something we can all cheer about.”
He credited a rising stock market and the diligence and ingenuity of our local business community.
“That said, sound government action, even at the local level, can help create conditions that support new economic growth,” he said.
The county continued to make workforce development a priority, providing a robust summer youth employment program that connects local businesses and non-profits to their future workforce.
“We created the first New Jersey first ‘one-stop’ welfare-to-work centers,” he said. “Today the ‘Work-First’ Program in Hudson can boast of a steady increase in cases closed due to earned income. Our groundbreaking Prisoner Re-Entry program has been called a model for the state. It increased the number of female inmates released from our jail who find employment – and stay out of prison – by 66 percent compared to those who did not take part in the program.”
School investment has paid off
DeGise said investment in the county college has paid off, noting that many of the graduates of the nationally accredited culinary arts program help feed the local hotel and hotel and hospitality industry needs.
“Our Schools of Technology continue to produce some of the best and brightest high school graduates in New Jersey,” he said, and noted that direct investment by the county has helped spur job creation in places like Weehawken, Jersey City and Harrison.
“We employed our bonding authority under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to jumpstart a hotel construction project in Weehawken,” he said.
Assistance from the county has helped entice businesses to move here from elsewhere, and that new development in Harrison is spurring growth on the county’s western end.
Job creation has become a focus in the county, he said, which includes outreach to the local business and development community, workshops for development, and streamlining investment incentive programs.
The county also seeks to take advantage of its transit hubs at venues for future development such as development currently planned near the Journal Square PATH station.
Project Labor Agreements with developers provide a way for local workers to benefit from development.
“PLA’s ensure we get a quality job and that workers get a fair shake,” DeGise said.
The county’s Pool Note Program through the Hudson County Improvement Authority has brought about $29.3 million in interest cost savings to local municipal governments.
As the chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, DeGise said he is overseeing a number of safety programs, including the Pedestrian Safety Education Campaign locally called “Street Smart New Jersey” being piloted in Jersey City.
“We’re also looking at how to move goods and people more efficiently and safely,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to widen roadways, but by investing in technology we can make our existing roadways more efficient.”
This will involve the use of smart technology to overcome some of the problems of narrow and congested streets. The county has constructed a new pedestrian bridge in North Bergen/Union City, and is working with the City of Jersey City to improve road safety between Communipaw Avenue and Montgomery Street on JFK Boulevard, and is working with staff from the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure & Transportation to conduct a Road Safety Audit of this dangerous ten-block stretch of the Boulevard in September. Other programs involve bicycle safety.
“Of course our most daunting transportation-related challenge over the next two years will be coping with the reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway,” he said. The county will partner with the state to use sensors along affected streets to help deal with some of the traffic issues. A committee that includes officials from the DOT, Jersey City and the county will review these in order to provide greater accountability.
The county has worked with the business community to help get them ready for the impact of the Skyway reconstruction. Even Chief Assignment Judge Peter Bariso has agreed to change court hours to help modify traffic issues.
But the county is faced with a number of infrastructure upgrades at the same time that includes the Skyway closing, the raising of Bayonne Bridge, the expansion of exit 14A on the New Jersey Turnpike, the continued closings of Rt. 139 for it’s reconstruction and the weekend shutdowns of the PATH system from the World Trade Center to Exchange Place and Newark for rest of 2014.
“I have received hundreds of emails on this topic from angry PATH riders. I urge the Port Authority to work with riders to better address their concerns,” he said. “At the very least, the Port Authority has to keep the dialog open between itself and its ridership.”
Progress in open space
“In the seven years between 2005 and 20012, the county Open Space Trust has provided over $44.8 million ($48,891,265) in funding for 116 projects across the county, improving 54 different parks and adding 24 acres of new open space in a very congested county,” DeGise reported.
Some of the progress in this area includes a new water park playground in Braddock Park in North Bergen, and reconfiguring of Washington Park in Union City to recreate more recreation space.
“This spring, with reprogramming dollars we hope to make available to Bayonne, we will to join Mayor Mark Smith in turning the shovel on a set of new tot lot parks in neighborhoods throughout the city,” DeGise said. “The Open Space Trust has been a key element in park development in Hoboken.”
This includes a ribbon cutting on at park at 1600 Park Ave. in the northern section of the city. The Open Space Trust has also contributed to the creation of a Kayak launch in the area near Hoboken and Weehawken.
“We continue to move forward in the construction of the county’s first public golf course in Lincoln Park, slated to open to the public in spring 2015,” he said. “The course will add a huge swath of new attractive green space to the area and help spark the growing revival of Jersey City’s West Side neighborhood.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.