The Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners are moving full steam ahead into the new year as investments in infrastructure, education and quality of life are on the horizon.
After being selected – once again – by his fellow commissioners to lead their dais as commissioner director, Ronald G. Rios said they look to continue to “foster and create vital partnerships” that attributed to the county’s accomplishments and financial strength in 2022.
Rios reflected on those accomplishments and touched on what is next at a reorganization meeting on Jan. 5 held at the Performing Arts Center on the Middlesex College campus in Edison. Nearly 500 people were in attendance, according to a press release through Middlesex County.
“Over the past year, my colleagues and I have been proud to see our community overcome challenges and fulfill the promise of a brighter future – for our residents, for our businesses, and for our families,” Rios said. “We’ve been able to do this by building public and private partnerships at the local, state, and federal level. These collaborations make a brighter future possible.”
Investing in infrastructure
The County Commissioners continue to build upon the foundation of Destination 2040, the County’s strategic plan for long-term economic success which is spearheaded by the Department of Transportation under the leadership of Kenny.
“Everything we do supports our vision for a brighter future for everyone who lives, works, and plays here in Middlesex County,” Rios said. “The County envisions a brighter future that grants better access to innovative spaces and cutting-edge healthcare treatment for those within and around Middlesex County through key investments in transformative community projects.”
Those projects include the County’s role as a core partner in the New Jersey Innovation Hub, which represents a significant investment in the future of innovation in New Jersey. The County will leverage its “AAA” bond rating to provide the financing mechanism for nearly $500 million in project funds. The Hub, which is planned to be built at the Ferren Mall in downtown New Brunswick, will serve as the future command center for DataCity, the County’s living laboratory for autonomous technology, according to the press release.
Officials including Gov. Phil Murphy came together to ceremonially break ground on the project in October 2021.
Additionally, Middlesex County has invested $25 million in the Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center, also in New Brunswick.
“This elite facility will transform cancer care through a combination of research, education, and patient care,” Rios said. “The Cancer Center will provide world-class cancer treatment for residents right here in the County, while also providing academic and hands-on training opportunities for Middlesex College and Middlesex County Magnet Schools students.
“Both the Hub and the Cancer Center are designed to attract opportunity, business, and talent from throughout the County, the state, and the region.”
The new Jack and Sheryl Morris Cancer Center is a state-of-the-art, freestanding cancer hospital featuring outpatient and inpatient capacity coupled with research laboratories, retail space and ancillary services devoted to patient wellness and is a first of its kind in New Jersey, according to Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health.
Other key projects include the County’s investments in transportation infrastructure, including the modernization of the New Brunswick Train Station – which will see the 120-year-old station updated with the amenities and technologies needed to support a bustling train station for the future – and the construction of the North Brunswick Train Station, which is nearing the completion of the concept design phase. Both projects are being managed in first-of-their kind partnerships between the Middlesex County Improvement Authority and New Jersey Transit.
The train station/transit village project in North Brunswick began 15 years ago as a means to offer relief to one of the state’s busiest rail lines, provide quicker commutes, reduce traffic along Route 1, relieve congestion at the New Brunswick and Jersey Avenue train stations, bring revenue and ratables to the area, add construction and permanent jobs, and provide an environmentally safe alternative to driving.
The former 212-acre Johnson & Johnson complex across from Commerce Boulevard on Route 1 in North Brunswick was converted to a transit-oriented development and is now part of Middlesex County’s Destination 2040 initiative as a future-forward growth strategy.
Rios said investments in the County’s transportation infrastructure will have multiple benefits for the county and the region.
“These projects will allow for broader access within and beyond our borders, easing commutes on major thoroughfares, attracting new revenue to the region, and allowing those within and beyond our county to better access our recreational facilities like our 19 County parks, our more than 13,000 acres of open space and preserved farmland, and our many performing arts centers,” he said said.
Investing in education
Middlesex County remains committed to building a brighter future through investments in education and career training.
“We envision a future that changes the educational landscape to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs, inventors, collaborators, and contributors,” Rios said. “To do this, we must foster a workforce of the future and nurture a new generation of learners, by making vital investments designed to strengthen and grow our college; our magnet schools; and our pipeline of talented, well-prepared workers who are ready to move into – or advance in – all industries, especially the County’s key business sectors: life sciences, autonomous technology, and food innovation.”
To that end, the Middlesex County Magnet Schools and Middlesex College have undergone a transformation to better align with the County’s distinctive brand strategy and economic growth plans. The Middlesex County Magnet Schools have a new name and visual identity that accurately reflect the district’s evolution and specialized education opportunities, which include skills-based training and rigorous academic coursework.
County officials announced in June 2022 that Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools would transition into a “new era of specialized education” with a new name and rebranded logo. After a century, the school district has transitioned to being called the Middlesex County Magnet Schools.
Comprised of five separate campuses in Piscataway, Perth Amboy, East Brunswick, Edison, and Woodbridge, the schools combine to serve 2,200 highschoolers. In addition, the schools also feature an Adult Education program that benefits nearly 400 adults annually.
The County is already seeing a return on its investment in Middlesex College’s new identity, with enrollment up 3% in 2022 – far above the state and national average for two-year colleges.
Middlesex College, formerly Middlesex County College, rebranded with a name change and new logo in 2021.
The enrollment increase is expected to continue as the County’s Community, Innovation, and Opportunity (CIO) Strategic Investment Plan, which was unveiled in fall 2022, is implemented. The CIO Strategic Investment Plan – through the addition of new academic, athletic, and performing arts facilities – will transform the Middlesex College campus into a space for the entire County community and as a regional attraction, according to the press release.
Investing in quality of life
Under the leadership of the Board of County Commissioners, Middlesex County envisions a brighter future for residents that encompasses more than state of-the-art facilities and regional attractions. The County will continue to offer and invest in core services and programs geared toward making a better life for the families and individuals who live here.
“Through our investments in talent, infrastructure, and our residents, we are building an even brighter future that is unique only to Middlesex County,” Rios said.
These investments include the County’s telehealth and community health programs, which are designed to ensure County residents have the tools they need to access vital healthcare services and education. First introduced in 2021 in direct response to issues brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic, these initiatives were expanded in 2022, according to the press release.
Additionally, the County has put significant support behind the state’s ANCHOR Property Tax Relief Program, to ensure eligible Middlesex County homeowners and renters have access to the program. Middlesex County also continues to provide support to the most vulnerable in the community through the County’s Coming Home and Housing First Funds and remains committed to helping veterans. Since its inception, the County’s Veterans Housing Assistance program has helped hundreds of veterans, according to the press release.
Foremost among Middlesex County’s investments in quality of life in 2023 will be a focus on mental health. This will involve a comprehensive effort across a range of areas such as community services, education, law enforcement, the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, and the George J. Otlowski, Sr. Center for Mental Health, officials said.
The County is also working with a professional partner to assess County policies, procedures, and programming in an effort to identify areas of improvement. Currently underway, the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging study is scheduled to conclude in 2023.
Murphy and New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) were in attendance and addressed the crowd.
“With each step forward, it becomes increasingly clearer: Middlesex County priorities and New Jersey priorities are one in the same,” Murphy said. “From its upgrades to pivotal transit facilities to its transformation of leading educational institutions, the County has served – and will continue to serve – as a microcosm of the stronger, fairer Garden State we are building.”
Middlesex County was also honored to receive messages of support from its federal representatives – U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) – all of whom joined the meeting virtually.
Rios also thanked County employees for their hard work and dedication, acknowledging the vital role they play in serving County residents and ensuring the success of all County programs and initiatives.
“Our County employees are the lifeblood of what we do,” he said, before speaking directly to the many employees who were in the audience: “You are the heart and soul of our operation. My fellow commissioners and I are continually in awe of your commitment to residents and businesses. We, and the entire community, thank you.”
The meeting included the swearing-in ceremonies of three county commissioners and the county sheriff. Claribel A. Azcona-Barber, Charles Kenny, and Chanelle Scott McCullum won the open seats on the dais and Mildred S. Scott won the open seat for county sheriff in the November 2022 election.
Along with Rios’ reappointment as commissioner director, County Commissioner Shanti Narra was chosen to serve as deputy commissioner for 2023.