Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes poses with local business and government leaders at the CountyFull size photo

Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes poses with local business and government leaders at the County's 5th Annual Economic Summit March 24.

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TRENTON, N.J.—High unemployment, a dismal state budget picture, and a stubborn recession all provided much to discuss as Mercer County held its Fifth Annual Economic Summit March 24 to give businesses a better sense of what to expect from the economy this year and how they can begin to recover from the downturn.

Approximately 200 people - including the President of Verizon New Jersey Dennis Bone, local mayors, representatives from all 13 County municipalities, and members of the County’s business community - gathered at The Conference Center at Mercer County Community College for the summit, which focused on economic trends in 2010. The summit’s theme was “Recovery? I Still Have Questions.”

“All regional County governments, municipalities and school districts were dealt a blow last week with the announcement of severe budget cuts from the state,” said Hughes as he opened the summit, which was co-sponsored by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We in Mercer County are going to work with all these partners and nonprofit groups to the extent that we can to offer the most support that we can. It’s a very tough time but we want to be a good partner.”

Hughes introduced Dennis Bone, who as president of Verizon New Jersey represented the company’s 18,000 New Jersey employees. Bone spoke about the challenges unique to doing business in Mercer County, and added that in his capacity of Chairman of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, he could attest that changes to make the state more business-friendly are ongoing.

“We are at the ‘ground zero’ of pain [from the recession] right now, and we have to work our way through that,” Bone said. “We have to look again at old state regulations and see if they apply in today’s world. New Jersey has not been very aggressive with business attraction and retention, and changing that is important.”

In addition, Bone said Governor Chris Christie is beginning to address the state’s cost structure to relieve some of the high taxes on businesses. He noted that despite the recession, “New Jersey has a history of delivering” innovation and has the educated workforce and marketplace to bounce back.

The event’s keynote speaker was Dr. Herb Taylor, an economist who is Vice President and Corporate Secretary of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Taylor, who was also the keynote speaker in 2009, gave attendees a detailed analysis of the economic forecast for the U.S. in 2010 and beyond.

While the recession remains a force, a modest pace of recovery is forecasted by economists through 2010 and early 2011, Taylor said, but a quick return to a robust economy likely will not happen at any point in the next three years. Interest rates will move up, which is an indication of a healthier economy, and banks will continue to be tight with credit but lending will not be as restrictive as it was last year, he said.

“We will see a gradual return to more normal economic conditions similar to what we had in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s,” Taylor said.

From a regional perspective, statistics taken from a survey of economists by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia indicated Mercer County has fared much better than around the state and nation. Mercer has lost only about 3 percent of its jobs in the recession, compared to 6 percent in New Jersey and across the U.S., thanks to the strong employment sectors of education and healthcare. Jobs will start becoming more available through 2010, though the job market will grow slowly, Taylor said.

Two major indicators of “real world” impact, home value and household wealth, also point to stabilization for County residents. Home construction will begin to ratchet up in 2010, and the tumbling home values seen in the past two years will level off, Taylor said. Household wealth - or the ability of residents and families to use expendable income - shows “possible growth” this year, which represents a major change from 2009 when household wealth was next to nothing.

Following the keynote address, two breakout sessions were held for attendees. They were: “Management: How Do I Do More with Less?” and “Funding: How Do I Get It?”, followed by a workshop for all attendees entitled, “Print Media & Internet: How Does the Market Identify with You?”.

Among the other notable officials at the event were: Mercer County freeholders John Cimino, Pasquale Colavita, and Dan Benson; Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello; Mercer County Community College President Dr. Patricia Donohue; Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo, West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh; Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried; East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov; and various municipal council members.

The title sponsor for the Economic Summit was PSE&G and the supporting sponsor was Verizon New Jersey. Reception sponsors were NAI/Fennelly, Right Management, and Heartland Payment Systems. The breakout sessions were sponsored by Mack-Cali Realty, Caliper, Fox Rothschild LLP, and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. Enterprise sponsors included Amboy Bank, Credit Union of New Jersey, Crest Engineering Associates Inc., ETS, IH Engineers PC, Klatzkin & Company LLP, Quaker Bridge Mall, Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc., Steams Associates LLC, Thomas Edison State College, Trenton Downtown Association, Trenton Thunder, Van-Note Harvey, and V.J. Scozzari & Sons, Inc. Table sponsors included Mercer County Women, Reporte Hispano, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, Structure Tone Inc., TD Bank, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.