THE EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN OF THE insurance brokerage firm Conner Strong & Buckelew, George Norcross is a well-known influencer, business leader and power broker in the Garden State—particularly in South Jersey. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Cooper University Health Care and the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, he is a driving force for the renaissance of Camden, and one of South Jersey’s most effective ambassadors—seeking to bring new businesses to the region and to expand job opportunities and healthcare options for its citizens.
“My main goal, beyond the obvious investments in physical buildings and infrastructure, is a commitment to fully funding South Jersey’s human infrastructure—better schools and educational opportunities; job training for workers; and support for people who have been in jail and want to return as productive members of their community,” explains Norcross. “If we focus on the fact that everyone, regardless of where or howthey grow up, deserves an equal opportunity to live a full and happy life, that’s more valuable than any investment in a building, bridge or highway.”
In this exclusive interview with COMMERCE, George Norcross offers his insights on the growth of South Jersey’s economy; new business opportunities and infrastructure projects; the rise of Camden and Atlantic City; expanding healthcare options; and the future development of South Jersey’s “abundant” land, ready for new companies, industries and entrepreneurs.
COMMERCE: How is South Jersey unique in terms of what it offers businesses, entrepreneurs, residents and their families?
GEORGE NORCROSS: For too long, South Jersey has been overlooked and overly reliant on a few industries—casinos in Atlantic City is the most prominent example, but far from the only one. But over the last few years, South Jersey is starting to be recognized because it offers a few unique opportunities for businesses and residents—location, for example.
What advantages does South Jersey’s location offer?
With the change over the last two decades in how people work, it’s easier than ever to do whatever kind of work you want, wherever you want. When quality of life issues matter, it’s hard to beat being somewhere like South Jersey, bounded by world-class beaches on one side and, less than 90 minutes away, a major city like Philadelphia. There’s a tremendous diversity of things to do here and because transportation options are plentiful—airports, highways and trains—it’s easy to get somewhere else when you need to.
Usable land and abundant space are also a plus for South Jersey, right?
Most people, when they think of New Jersey, think of a densely packed area, whether a city or a popular suburb. South Jersey has both, of course, but we also have abundant space—both open space like the Pine Barrens and parks, but also significant land that can be developed for the next big thing.
“South Jersey has abundant space—both open space like the Pine Barrens and parks, but also significant land that can be developed for the next big thing,” explains Norcross.
Since affordability is an issue in New Jersey, is South Jersey the answer?
New Jersey isn’t always the most affordable place to live or build a business, but the cost of living in most of South Jersey is appreciably cheaper than other areas, and when that is combined with the high quality of life here, it looks even more attractive and affordable—for what you can get here, it can be a great deal.
Government and industry must work together to foster economic development. Is South Jersey up to this challenge?
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of having local, state and federal officials, community leaders and the non-profit and business communities all committed to the same things and working together—and that’s what makes South Jersey unique in New
New Jersey and, I believe, anywhere in the region. It’s what has helped spark and continue Camden’s renaissance, and it is what is helping Atlantic City climb, refocus and rebuild. We all understand that what happens in any of the seven South Jersey counties has an impact on all of us, and we are committed to not letting partisanship get in the way of what’s best for the region.
What are some significant business or infrastructure projects in South Jersey? Growth opportunities?
South Jersey is seeing two urban areas that are going through significant renaissances—Camden and Atlantic City—that include significant business and infrastructure investment. In Camden’s case, there is more than $3 billion in recent, underway or fully funded development and in Atlantic City, there is new funding coming in to restore and reinvest in critical properties, most notably the soon-to-open Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. I think those two areas will continue to be very strong centers of business growth in the next decade, particularly for the residents of both communities. There’s also the port in South Jersey that is growing and thriving, supporting thousands of jobs directly and indirectly. It may not get the attention it deserves, but it is ina very strong place and creates and sustains a significant amount of economic development, which will only increase with the new industry coming into Camden and the deepening of the Delaware.
What are some of the challenges of South Jersey, from a business perspective?
There are the usual challenges that every community must face—the need for continued investment, to improve schools and for a tax system that works to promote jobs, rather than punish job creators. But there are two major challenges South Jersey faces: continuing the partnership with state and federal officials that the region has benefitted from over the last decade and gaining recognition for all that it offers to businesses and people. There is a new administration in Trenton, and I hope and expect that Governor Murphy will continue to be an active partner with South Jersey, and I am committed to working to make sure that partnership continues. I also believe that South Jersey has been overshadowed by the north and Philadelphia, but as we continue to rebound, I expect that businesses and residents will give us another look—and they’ll like what they see.
How would you compare the influence of Philadelphia in South Jersey to the rest of the Garden State?
It’s obviously a big influence in a lot of ways—we are in the Philadelphia media market and we grow up fans of the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers and, of course, the Eagles. But it’s also an influence on who lives here. For decades, South Jersey was the place to move after living in Philadelphia during your twenties but it’s now a place that families are staying. That will have an impact on property values and our ability to attract the types of workers businesses want and need. But literally hundreds of thousands of people travel to New Jersey from Philadelphia every weekend during the summer, so they’ll have plenty of opportunity to see what we can offer.
How well does Trenton—New Jersey’s state government—represent and serve South Jersey?
I think it has represented and served South Jersey strongly in recent years, something I hope will continue with the new administration. There was an unprecedented partnership between the state and South Jersey over the last eight years and it’s no understatement to say that without Governor Christie being committed to our area, we wouldn’t have seen the investments we’ve benefitted from, and we wouldn’t be seeing the progress we are making. I believe that’s because as a community—elected officials, community and business leaders—we were united and asked for specific, achievable things. One interesting thing is that neither leader of each legislative chamber is from North Jersey—Senate President Sweeney is from South Jersey and House Speaker Coughlin is from Middlesex. It’ll be interesting tosee how that impacts the budget and its priorities. One of the most important issues, of course, is fixing a broken school funding formula that overfunds some districts at the expense of others.
What are some of the best-known and least-known business success stories in South Jersey?
I think one of the most underreported stories in South Jersey is Holtec International, where I am proud to serve as an unpaid board member. Holtec could have gone anywhere for its new factory—it is one of two companies in the world that makes secure aboveground storage containers for spent nuclear fuel—but built a huge new facility in Camden. It’s hiring hundreds of workers, including directly from local high schools. I think the growth of the “eds and meds” economy is a story that’s well-known but is only going to get better. South Jersey has quickly elevated its healthcare and research services to rank, I think, among the best in the area. We all agree that sector of our economy is a growth opportunity and I’m happy that South Jersey can participate.
What do you see in the future for South Jersey’s business community?
I think it will continue to grow, of course, but more importantly, I think it will continue to diversify. Yes, the “eds and meds” economy is growing, but with that sort of investment, there has always been offshoots that bring a real sense of dynamism and opportunity to communities. Again, as I stated before, I think if someone can find a job that excites them, given all that South Jersey has to offer when it comes to a high quality of life, it’d be hard for people to go elsewhere.
How do you see Camden changing in the future? Urban vs. rural issues for South Jersey?
I think Camden will continue on the path it’s on—it’s safer than it has been in decades, it’s schools are better than they likely have ever been and businesses are choosing to set down long-term roots here. The fact that there is a demand for market rate housing is a clear sign of the city’s long-term health. I’m very proud to have been part of the city’s renaissance and I can’t wait to see how far we can go and how fast. That said, I hope that there isn’t much change in the urban vs. rural set-up in the area. I think it’d be great if we are able to continue to have rich farms, beautiful beach towns, strong suburbs and exciting urban areas. That would be ideall.
What industries have the greatest growth potential for South Jersey?
Eds and meds, of course, as they are for almost every community, but also the broader technology community. Tech jobs, while requiring highly skilled employees, tend to teach their employees the skills needed, opening up a real opportunity for people who want to work, but for some reason don’t attend college. In some com-munities, as much as 50 percent of tech jobs don’t require a college degree. These are real jobs, with the opportunity to create significant wealth for owners, workers and communities. We’re starting to see some of those jobs here, but we need to do more to foster them.
What are the future healthcare needs for South Jersey, and are they being served now?
South Jersey has some of the finest healthcare in the region—I say that as the chair of Cooper University Health Care and MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. As many recognize, the diseases of aging are increasingly important, and South Jersey, like most other places, must be prepared to identify and treat them, as well as support people as they age to allow seniors to live full and productive lives. There also can be no debate about the need to combat—forcefully—the problem of opioid addiction. There is no group it hasn’t impacted, and it destroys families and communities. I’m not sure we’ve found a solution to it yet, although there are some interesting prevention and treatment options in the area. But more needs to be done.
How can the rest of New Jersey better connect and do business with South Jersey?
One of the most important things we can do is what we are doing now—getting the word out about the opportunities that exist. I also think things like the new light rail, continued improvements to our highway system and public transit will go a long way. If we make it easier to get here, there’s no reason not to come.