"This bill finally puts Southern New Jersey on more equal footing with the rest of the state and Philadelphia," State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) said at Friday's event, sponsored jointly by Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties. "Our economic incentive packages were designed for the state as a whole, but the northern end with New York is a very different climate than the southern end with Philadelphia."
He said Philadelphia, by offering a 10-year real estate tax abatement to developers and homeowners, gave itself an advantage over South Jersey in spurring housing development and rehabilitation, while Keystone Opportunity Zones - commercial or industrial areas with greatly reduced or eliminated tax burdens for property owners, residents, and businesses throughout Pennsylvania - gave that state a tool to attract larger-scale developments.
"We have projects on a smaller scale here," Norcross said. "It was clear that incentives in New Jersey had not been working for the southern half."
Norcross said the new formula created a tiered system based on regional population and business growth potential to generate more balanced development across the state.
The new law, he said, involved more than a year of discussions with South Jersey stakeholders. The act streamlined the state's economic development incentive programs into two categories: GrowNJ, which will be the state's main job-creation incentive program, and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Program (ERG), now its sole incentive program for developers.
Both programs have been extended until July 1, 2019. Supporters say the reorganization makes it easier for small and medium-size businesses to take advantage of them.
A key component of the act is that it gives struggling urban areas a boost. It encourages development and private sector job growth in "Garden State Growth Zones," identified as the state's four cities with the lowest median family income: Camden, Trenton, Passaic, and Paterson.
"I predict we will look back 10 or 15 years from now and say this [Economic Opportunity Act] was the game-changer that created economic growth in South Jersey," Cappelli said. "The tax credits available for developers who invest and create jobs will allow those developers to build at a very low net cost. It allows tenants to lease at a very low number, so this will have a significant impact."
Added Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons, the county's liaison to economic development: "Geographically, the boundaries have been broadened, so areas that did not qualify for these incentive programs before now can."
The Port of Paulsboro and the Rowan Boulevard project in downtown Glassboro qualify as examples, she said.
"This is something that will help attract bigger projects and create more jobs," Simmons said.
Projects in the four targeted cities will have significantly lower eligibility thresholds and higher incentive levels and be eligible to give property-tax abatements for new development.
Norcross, who lives in the Victor on the Camden waterfront, said he often would sit at the pub on the ground level of his building and look toward Philadelphia and "see nothing but parking lots between me and the fifth-largest metropolitan city in the country."
"It's a clear illustration that something's not working," he said of the dearth of development on this side of the water. "This is what the act was designed to address - to bring economic development to the whole region, but with an emphasis on the urban centers."
James Blanda, executive director of the Camden County Improvement Authority - an independent public agency that provides low-cost financing, economic development, and project development services for community groups and not-for-profit organizations - said the new law would let Camden attract businesses that normally would not look there, or at the county in general.
"A lot of the incentives are for the city of Camden, and we're working with Cooper's Ferry and also with the city itself to partner among the three agencies to help these businesses and get the word out," he said. "These incentives haven't been done in decades, and this is a great opportunity."