“Very strong” is how Peter Crowley sums up the area’s economic outlook for 2016. As President/CEO of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce representing over 1,200 clients, he sees an improved national economy, more robust job gains and a bolstered U.S. dollar contributing to an overall confidence locally.

“We’ve had a steady increase in all sectors. From the recent expansions of Sandoz, Church & Dwight, Novo Nordisk and Shiseido as well as new headquarters for Bristol Myers Squibb and NRG, the growth has been consistent and sustainable.”

Crowley also cites relocations, start-ups and incubators as positive signs. “Dr. Reddy recently moved here from New Brunswick to Plainsboro, and Global Essence – a marketer of flavorings, beauty supplies and household products – just signed a lease for its new corporate headquarters in Hamilton.” Tiger Labs and the new E-Lab Accelerator Hub in Princeton also contribute to tech growth in the region.

That’s good news for growing small businesses as well. “Smaller companies, especially in the service industry, support larger ones,” says Herb Ames, CEO of Capitol Region Minority Chamber. “These major employers depend on our local workforce for business-to-business suppliers, construction, housing, hospitality and retail. There are many opportunities here for start-ups and established businesses.”

Confidence Is Growing

According to Inc. Magazine’s annual State of Small Business survey, growth companies in particular have “reasons to be cheerful.” Entrepreneurs are more confident than they were during the recession with ample money for funding. The survey reports that banks remain by far the most common source of capital for entrepreneurs with 45% of respondents seeking loans or lines of credit from them this year. Ames observes that many banks are taking a more pro-active approach, with financial institutions competing for local loan customers.

For example, with the recently completed merger with Hudson City Bancorp, M&T Bank has continued its expansion into New Jersey and Mercer County. As the seventh-largest SBA lender in the country, M&T entered the state in 2007 and further expanded into Mercer County, recruiting experienced bankers from the community.

“We’re large enough to offer a wide variety of financial solutions for area businesses,” says Jane Massi, M&T Vice President, “combined with a long track record of providing personalized service.” Noting that the local private sector job count is now well above pre-recession levels after lagging the U.S. from 2011-2014, Massi points out that Mercer County job creation outperformed the nation in 2015. “Business services, healthcare and education have been the primary drivers of hiring and all of this bodes well for small business,” she adds.

Lower gas prices are a significant factor too, especially with central Jersey’s logistical advantage between New York and Philadelphia. As the state’s economic czar, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno reminds business owners that Mercer County is perfectly located. “We can reach one-third of the entire U.S. population on almost one tank of gas, giving us access to $3 trillion worth of disposable income.”

Robert Prunetti, President and CEO of the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges there are still challenges, however. “Although we have a highly educated workforce, we must do a better job to attract and retain top talent for other portions of our growth economy. Traditional manufacturers in automotive, steel — and locally in rubber and pottery — are being replaced by advanced manufacturing, logistics, distribution and high tech work.”

As Chair of the Workforce Advisory Development Board focused on training opportunities for urban youth in the Trenton area, Prunetti is coordinating with leaders in industry, social services and education to identify where our region’s “human capital” can realize its potential through training, mentorships, internships and other initiatives.

That has also been a focus of the Trenton area Latino Merchants Association, dedicating time to educating the public and guiding its 500+ members toward available opportunities.

“We take care of business owners in the Latino community,” says Director Manuel Segura. “There are many salons, restaurants, grocers and barber shops which are ready to expand now. So our offices on Cass Street will be staffed with business and legal advisors, helping Latino entrepreneurs navigate each step. Teaming with the Spanish Business Center at Mercer County’s SBDC will also help us take advantage of training, counseling and more.”

Leverage Connections

“Learning how to capitalize on these shifts in the local economy is often difficult for independent businesses,” says Lorraine Allen, Director of America’s Small Business Development Center at The College of New Jersey. “There are multiple marketing opportunities, joint ventures to be created, and sales to be secured. Businesses need to leverage their connections to take advantages of these shifts, including government supported programs like the SBDC.”

Allen notes that on the financial front alone, “The SBDC at TCNJ can be a capital connection in our state’s capitol, specializing in confidential counsel for entrepreneurs seeking to grow and sustain their business.” From improving your branding and PR to preparing for e-commerce and increasing sales, “tapping into available resources is just smart business.”