An innovative collaboration between state government, the private sector and higher education has opened a virtual window into the economic health of New Jersey. The New Jersey Business Resource Center is an online cache of data created to market the state's business assets and help corporate decision-makers considering strategic moves in the marketplace.
Brought online in April after two years of planning and development, the Business Resource Center is the result of a joint venture between the New Jersey Commerce and Economic Growth Commission, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Prosperity New Jersey, a 60-member collection of public and private entities whose goal is to promote, retain, expand and attract business in the state.
The site features more than 60 pages offering data ranging from population demographics and the economy to education and industry. Users can check the state's employment by industry and occupation and download information on business incentives, tax credits and financing.
A comprehensive "Top Business" section contains more than 50 lists of the state's largest companies covering nearly a dozen major industries. From the largest venture-capital firms and top-10 law firms to the 26 Fortune 500 companies that call New Jersey home, the page offers something for all economic development professionals.
The initial framework of the Business Resource Center (BRC) grew out of the mission of Prosperity New Jersey, created in 1995 by executive order of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The nonprofit, public/private partnership, financed by tax-deductible, private-sector funds, counts corporate heavyweights AT&T, Continental Airlines and Johnson & Johnson among its advisory board members. The BRC serves as one of the vehicles helping the organization execute its prime directive of maximizing corporate job retention, expansion and creation in the nation's eighth-largest economy.
Web sites like the BRC are becoming popular with state and local government agencies, as competition between them tightens to lure businesses to their jurisdictions. New Jersey's site is unique, state officials said, because it is the first state economic development Web site that doesn't require the user to register or fill out online surveys to access the data.
"The New Jersey Business Resource Center has enabled us to increase the velocity of our marketing efforts," said Gualberto "Gil" Medina, secretary of the New Jersey Commerce and Economic Growth Commission. "The faster we furnish information about New Jersey to the business community, the faster they'll see that New Jersey has exactly the features they need."
As commission officials have learned from experience, the ease with which a corporation can retrieve decision-critical data is often the deciding factor in its choice to relocate to one region over another.
"In the past, New Jersey would lose out because it would take months to get interested companies the information they were seeking, where other states where turning it around in hours or days," said Andrew Samson, the commission's webmaster. "This led to the rationale of providing some resource that would allow companies to get access to this key information at any time."
In its first two months of operation, the site received nearly 37,500 hits. Using Web-trending software to track user statistics, commission officials were pleasantly surprised to find hits from as far away as England, as well as a high volume of users from other states, most notably New Jersey's neighbors and regional competitors. Statistics show that the site is popular with corporate relocation consultants, commercial real-estate brokers and local chambers of commerce.
The BRC has evolved from its initial offering of simple charts and graphs that could be downloaded for use in standard PC application software. Programmers, recognizing that accuracy is their site's selling point, now rely on more sophisticated Web links and employ third-party software that automatically detects when linked databases change and updates the site with the new information to keep the data fresh.
"Early on, our goal was simply to get as much information up on the site in the shortest time possible," Samson said. That meant manually collecting data from publications, searches or in-house databases. "We soon found that much of information we were gathering was posted on other agency sites. Given our staffing and resource limitations, it just become more efficient for us to link directly to those sites."
The commission relies on students and staff at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to perform the day-to-day server functions. As webmaster, Samson is responsible for the site's content and directory structure. Changes to links, charts or other data are sent to NJIT for uploading to the Web-site server. NJIT is also assisting the commission with ongoing refinements to fully automate the site and track user statistics.
"We're encouraging users to let us know if we're on target or if there are things we don't have a lot of information on," Samson said. "We're working with the folks at NJIT
to further automate the process and make this a much more structured process."
Future site enhancements include a GIS component that will allow users to create map overlays showing demographic and economic data by county or other geographic region. Commission officials are also toying with the idea of adding a bulletin board that would allow businesses to put out feelers on proposed moves and exchange information. If, for example, a New Jersey company was considering relocation from one county to another, company representatives could post a message inquiring about the availability of office space in the new area. Relocation firms or real-estate companies might respond with prospective locations.
Samson said confidentiality issues need to be addressed before the bulletin board is established. One option under consideration is to make the bulletin board a subscriber-only service. The rest of the site would remain open to all users.
Additional information is available by contacting Andrew Samson, webmaster of the New Jersey Commerce and Economic Growth Commission, at 609/777-0885 or via e-mail.
Tom Byerly is a writer based in Elk Grove, Calif.