WOODBRIDGE, NJ-With the economy at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seemed a perfect time for the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office properties panel to address economic growth challenges. Panelists Dr. James Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers; New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D); and Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine spelled out many difficulties the state currently faces, but offered few solutions.

“We’re at a precarious crossroads,” warned moderator Michael Seeve of Mountain Development Corp., Clifton. In the current climate, Seeve pointed out, construction costs are high due to the price of oil, financing is difficult to secure and approvals slow to arrive. The other panelists agreed that New Jersey is in a crisis.

“We need bold moves and we’re not taking them,” said Lesniak. “We need bipartisan support and we’re not giving it.”

But bipartisan support will only work if those in power acknowledge that there’s a problem, as Hughes pointed out. He went on to cite statistics that clearly spell out the fact that New Jersey has experienced anemic job growth in the past several years, only matching the job growth of the country in 2008, when national job growth “cratered.”

“The economy isn’t going to turn around on its own, we need proactive economic policies,” Hughes said. “We need to look at every piece of legislation and examine its potential economic impact.”

Legislation, Mulshine asserted, has been the problem all along. “We’ve been overtaxed and overregulated in this state,” he said. Mulshine asserted that former Gov. James McGreevy’s legislation against corporations and millionaire’s tax helped turn New Jersey from a state seen as a low-cost alternative to New York City and Philadelphia into a state viewed as unfriendly to business. In addition, he contended, the state’s policies to put areas such as the Highlands and Pinelands off limits to development curtailed necessary growth and made it more difficult to develop affordable housing.

The panel saw no quick fixes on the horizon. “There is no silver bullet to cure our problems,” Hughes said. “We have to recognize that we have these problems and make an effort to be more business friendly.”

The sore subject of toll increases was raised again when Lesniak mentioned that the state does, in fact, intend to raise tolls–though not by 800% as was previously suggested–to pay for bridge and road repairs and the proposed second tunnel–the Trans Hudson Express–to New York City, a project Lesniak believes will have an enormous economic impact on New Jersey because it will stimulate development around the state’s train stations. Mulshine countered the toll hike proposal with the suggestion that raising the gas tax slightly will be a more efficient way to raise capital for the state.

Higher gas prices may have a silver lining, as Hughes pointed out, because suddenly distance matters again and companies may reconsider moving to states that are cheaper, but also further away from New York City. “Our geographic advantage will start to matter again, so there are some benefits to this new, painful reality,” he said.