New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Tim Sullivan isn’t just interested in revitalizing New Jersey as an innovation hub, he is also focused on ensuring the state can adapt to the future.
“Everyone is talking about (artificial intelligence) and what that is going to do, and autonomous vehicles are going to do — I don’t know the answer,” he told ROI-NJ on Thursday in Hoboken. “Five or 10 years from now, we are going to be talking about another vintage of what those next big things are going to be.
“What we want to do is have a workforce and ecosystem that is flexible and nimble enough to respond to lots of those multigenerational challenges.”
Sullivan had just finished addressing a crowd of more than 50 at the Propelify festival Thursday evening.
Like Gov. Phil Murphy, Sullivan has a history in the New York City financial sector.
Sullivan, however, also has worked at economic development agencies in New York City and Connecticut.
He said he understands the internal and external elements needed by the state to push forward in innovation.
There are external factors that affect the state’s ability to be competitive and boost the economy, such as transportation efficiencies and renewable energy, Sullivan said.
“Our cities have to be strong,” he said. “People not only have to be able to get into New Jersey and out of New Jersey, but move around within New Jersey, within our cities. Making sure (existing transportation) works great, and that we continue to invest in new infrastructure is really important.
“Absent a big federal infrastructure program, which, there was supposed to be one, it’s going to take hard choices, but I think the governor is committed to that.”
Murphy has talked about revitalizing New Jersey’s reputation as an innovation industry.
But putting New Jersey back on the map means different things to different people, Sullivan said.
“When we talk about an innovation economy, that means really fostering a stronger connection between higher education, commercialization of research and the innovation economy,” he said.
The EDA’s role in all this is also key, especially in light of criticisms of how the agency has doled out tax incentives.
“The core programs … are set to sunset about a year from now, at the end of the next fiscal year, and the governor talked about, in his budget address, a desire to revisit and take a fresh look at those programs and having a good policy discussion and debate with legislators and stakeholders between now and then,” he said.
“It’s certainly an opportune time to revisit some of those and make sure … there’s the right return for the taxpayers and making sure we have the diversity of tools to invest in different parts of the economy.”
Future investment from the EDA is likely to be focused on the innovation economy, he said.
But how will the agency shuffle around its investment goals without receiving similar criticisms to those that exist now — that companies are getting tax breaks that increase the tax burden on the residents?
“Some of it is about continuing to be rigorous,” Sullivan said. “I think our team is rigorous in evaluating those investments and making sure we have as much information as we can to evaluate the asks that are made of us.
“But it’s about making sure we have really targeted, focused investments that achieve the public policy goals that we’re most interested in: Are we creating opportunities, are we creating opportunities for good jobs that are an inclusive economic strategy that is focused on our cities, and focused on creating opportunities around our transit nodes?”
The challenge that New Jersey faces, which is not unique to New Jersey, is how to grow while also recycling existing structures and communities and retrofitting them to the needs of today and tomorrow, he said.
Tied to that is the biggest issue that Sullivan hears about: finding talent.
Despite being having the largest concentration of Ph.D.s in the world — specifically, engineers and scientists —there is still a challenge, he said.
“That’s a challenge for lots of different reasons,” he said. “We export way too many college graduates; we need to be net importers of college graduates. So that’s part of the puzzle.
“The biggest part of that puzzle is cities and mixed-use, walkable communities. The Jersey City, Hoboken and Newark success story needs to be replicated in lots of places. Not just for young professionals, but increasingly empty-nesters who don’t want to have to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway — but also don’t want to move to Florida — we have got to give those folks options. And those options can’t just be apartments in the city.”
Then, there is also the Amazon factor — and Newark making the list of 20 finalists.
Sullivan told the crowd what it meant to the state.
“Here’s what I think about the Amazon process,” he said. “One, I’d sure rather be in the Top 20 than the bottom 218 folks who tried to make it. That’s really gratifying. Working like heck to get from Top 20 to in the top of whatever number of folks they cut down to. One of the most interesting things about the Amazon process is it’s really gratifying for those of us who think the future of the American economy is urban and cities.
“Amazon did us all a big favor — they put out a list of what they want. They didn’t want a suburban sprawling farm that you all drive out to that has 10,000 parking spots and nothing else around. They want density … that’s what they are looking for.”
Density is something New Jersey excels in as the most densely populated state compared to its size.
And if Amazon doesn’t want it, other companies are certainly going to be looking for it, Sullivan said.