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HOLMDEL, NJ-Garden State business and academic leaders gathered on Tuesday to participate in the third annual New Jersey Economic Policy Forum, an initiative focused on bringing together key stakeholders to discuss economic challenges and opportunities in the state. This year’s venue was the former Bell Labs facility on Crawfords Corner Road here.

The New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, Rutgers University, Cushman & Wakefield Inc. and several partner trade associations created the Economic Policy Forum in 2007. Its efforts center on a twice-yearly C-suite survey of top-level executives in New Jersey.

Conducted by the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, the survey is administered every six months, asking executives a variety of questions associated with the state’s economy and business climate.

The event included a program and discussion focused on the survey’s most recent results as compared to past findings. Two panel discussions featured the forum’s association partners and C-suite level executives from participating companies.

“The forum creates valuable dialogue among people, businesses and associations with vested interests in New Jersey’s economic growth,” noted Joan Verplanck, chamber president, who welcomed the group along with Cushman & Wakefield’s Gil Medina. “The data gathered during the survey process provides a tangible, measurable launching point from which we are working for progress. Everyone involved shares a commitment to the advocacy of a business-friendly New Jersey.”

Marc D. Weiner, J.D., Ph.D., faculty fellow and associate director of the Bloustein Center for Survey Research, and Jim Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, launched the program with an overview of the survey methodology and results. Joe Seneca, professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, followed with a presentation of New Jersey economic data.

Among the survey’s findings, only 11.9% of respondents rated the Garden State as an “excellent/good” place to do business in Dec. 2009, with the remaining 88.1% opting for “only fair/poor.” Though, to be clear, the stats weren’t much better in Nov. ’07, when only 20.3% cited the state as a good place to operate.

Similarly, only 11.1% thought that New Jersey was a good place to expand their company. It’s probably no surprise then that not one executive surveyed thought the state’s taxes were better than most other states and only 2.2% found New Jersey’s regulatory environment to be preferable.

Despite these findings, respondents were more optimistic about the state’s economy now than in the past two years, with 19.2% reporting that the economy has gotten better in the past 12 months. While that figure still isn’t great, it’s up from a low of 0% in June 2007. And a majority–37.6%–think that the New Jersey economy will continue to improve in the coming year. However, 71.7% admit that we are still in an economic recession.

Likely not a surprise, the survey showed that 57.4% of respondents were forced to layoff employees due to the recession, with another 38.7% saying that they reduced wages. And despite all of this, 74.2% of respondents saw their profits decrease in the first half of 2009, nearly all of which was attributed to a loss of revenue.

On a brighter note, more than half–63.7%–expect revenues to increase in 2010. However, only 24.4% plan to halt cost reduction strategies, and even fewer–15.2%–said they would increase the number of Garden State-based employees over the next 12 months. Interestingly, a much larger percentage, at 34.4%, plans to increase the number of non-New Jersey-based employees in the coming year.

On the federal front, 58.9% of respondents said that the stimulus package had a stabilizing–but not stimulating–effect. But only 13.4% claimed their companies benefited directly from the federal stimulus. Real estate looks to remain tight next year, with only 5.1% of those surveyed saying they would increase their space over the next 12 months.

“Considering the scope of our national recession, New Jersey is doing fairly well,” noted Ken McCarthy, managing director of research at Cushman & Wakefield, who made a presentation entitled, “The Economy, the C-Suite Response to the Economy and the State of Commercial Real Estate. The state’s strong fundamentals–location, infrastructure and real estate inventory–certainly will play as an advantage as the recovery takes hold. Retaining and building upon our diversified corporate tenant base will be a critical step to our future economic health.”

Included in McCarthy’s presentation was an overview of the Garden State’s office and industrial markets, culled from Cushman & Wakefield’s Q3 market reports. The data showed that Northern New Jersey average asking rents fell slightly from $26.91 in the third quarter of 2008 to $26.03 in Q3 2009. In the central part of the state, C&W found the decline in rents year-over-year was slightly larger, from $24.77 in Q3 ’08 to $23.47 during that same period this year.

Meanwhile, the industrial market has slowed considerably, with only 8.3 million square feet of leases completed as of the third quarter, compared to 17.1 million in 2008 and a high of 26.6 million in 2004. Rents are off as well, though only slightly, down 41 cents from $6.64 in the third quarter of ’08 to $6.23 in Q3 ’09.

Verplanck then moderated the Association Leaders Roundtable, during which panelists compared the C-suite survey data to their own association’s findings. Participants included: Hon. Bob Franks, president of the Healthcare Institute of New Jersey; Maxine Ballen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Technology Council; Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ; Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association; and Ralph Thomas, executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs

Brian Thompson, New Jersey correspondent, NBC News4NY, moderated the executive town hall discussion. Business leaders who participated in the C-suite survey discussed ways to improve New Jersey’s economic performance. The town hall-style format enabled audience members to ask questions of the panelists, who included: Steve Noonan, executive vice president and CFO of Telcordia Technologies; Annette Catino, president and CEO of Qualcare; Kelly Watson, New Jersey office managing partner at KPMG; Christopher M. Lepre, senior vice president, market business units, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey; and Chris Schaber, Ph.D., CEO, Soligenix.

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