By Joshua Burd
There is no sitting still for Melanie Willoughby.
After all, as the head of the Business Action Center, she believes her primary job is to promote the state agency and its role as a government facilitator. It’s why she is constantly on the road, spreading the message to chambers of commerce, libraries, women’s groups and “pretty much anybody and everyone who could possibly tell a business that we exist for them to be helped.”
That message is always the same:
“You may not need us now, but down the road you now know who to call.”
Headquartered in Trenton, the Business Action Center has long billed itself as a one-stop shop for helping companies grow in New Jersey and attracting new ones from out of state. That often means finding solutions for commercial real estate needs, from helping a scientist find lab space to assisting Amazon with its ever-growing network of fulfillment centers.
It also means helping developers and their professionals navigate the web of state agencies that are involved in real estate decisions, from NJ Transit to the Department of Environmental Protection.
“A lot of times, it’s just about … what the business thinks they heard and what the department thinks they said — and it’s about (trying) to see if we can meet in the middle with what really is necessary,” said Willoughby, the agency’s executive director. “Sometimes you need a third party in order to sort through that, so we are the facilitator and sometimes the psychiatrist as well.”
The government affairs veteran joined the BAC this past March as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, following 15 years with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Real Estate NJ sat down recently with Willoughby to discuss the agency and how it helps business and commercial real estate professionals. Below are excerpts from the interview.
RENJ: For anyone who doesn’t know, can you recap what you see as the role of the agency?
MELANIE WILLOUGHBY: The mission of the Business Action Center is, in my mind, to be the go-to agency within government for businesses of all sizes, from someone who wants to start a business right up to Amazon, to be able to ask questions about things that are related to government, on the state, local and county levels, as well as (questions) about how they get something done.
Anytime you’re dealing with government it can be very complex and you may not even know where to start. You may be really concerned about being transferred 400 times and then someone dropping your call. So that frustration is what the Business Action Center, in my mind, wants to eliminate, because I was in the private sector and helping businesses for a very long time and understood their frustration. And I experienced it myself, so when I had the honor of becoming the head of the Business Action Center, for me it was really about being a full-service operation, whose sole mission was to make sure that we either create a job or save a job by virtue of helping that business.
RENJ: Can you expand on that?
MW: For instance, we will help businesses that need permits, which is very much a given about what we do. And that’s because there are a lot of permit requirements and businesses sometimes may need five, six or seven of them for just one redevelopment or an expansion. So we help to sort through that. Then we may very well need to help them with being able to understand what paperwork that they need to do and then get answers from the departments about where their permit is in the process. Now, we’re not going to expedite the permit, we’re not going to have a permit provided if they haven’t completed their paperwork. We are merely a facilitator in that regard.
RENJ: Let’s turn the conversation specifically to real estate. What types of questions do you field from the development community?
MW: Real estate is a very big part of the role that our business advocates play … because companies will come to us that either have outgrown their space and are looking to find a new site or they want to expand on that site because they have the capacity and they are going to need new permits to be able to do that. They’re also going to be coming to us and saying, ‘In my expansion, I need more employees, so how can you help me find the skilled workers that I need as I’m expanding or I’m relocating?’
So we are full-service in that we don’t just help you with your redevelopment or expansion, but we also help you with everything that you need, soup to nuts, to be able to make that building possible and outfit it with people, which is critical.
RENJ: What is your first step when someone calls and says they need space?
MW: We have a site selection service, so we go based on what their needs are, based on the square footage, what kind of space they need, how much parking. We put all of that into our site selection service and we come up with a number of sites for them. And then we actually take them to the sites. … We’ll get in touch with whoever is the developer or the realtor who is handling that site and then we will take them there to see if they like it or not.
And then once they decide on a site, then we will be a sort of project manager and (coordinate) what the site’s requirements are, what you need from DEP, what you need from the Department of Community Affairs, what you might need from DOT — because there might be some reworking of the road or you may need a light if you’re talking about a lot of movement of traffic.
For instance, when we were working with Amazon and helping them find all their sites for their logistics centers, there was a lot of action with the DOT — with road cuts and traffic lights — and also transportation for helping to move employees to come work for them.
RENJ: So someone even as large as Amazon that’s sophisticated and can hire as many private consultants as they want could still use the help of the Business Action Center?
MW: It’s much more efficient, because when you have a consultant who may call the Department of Environment Protection, they may not get as far as someone from the government who is calling into the DEP and is capable of coordinating all the meetings. So many times, it’s not just that you need to talk to one person, you may need to bring a lot of people together for a coordinated approach.
And it also depends on the municipality, because New Jersey is a home rule state and, as a home rule state, every municipality may be very different in how they will work with the business. And we are very aware of those municipalities that are friendly to business and those that aren’t.
RENJ: When you’re working on a real estate requirement, do you typically hear directly from someone with the business or an outside professional?
MW: It’s all across the board. We will get calls from a broker, for instance, who will say, ‘I have Project X and … these are what the requirements are. Can you give me some suggestions of sites and what type of services you might be able to provide to them?’ So we do that because they’re shopping. We also hear from developers who are calling us about a site that they’re developing and that they’ve run into roadblocks. We had one (that was) having an issue with New Jersey Transit because there was a right of way on the property. They thought they had worked everything out with New Jersey Transit, but it appears there were just a few additional issues that needed to be worked out, which we did.
RENJ: Is there a particular industry where you’re seeing a lot of upside and where you’re seeing requirements come across your desk?
MW: We are very committed to advanced manufacturing and one of the little-known facts is that manufacturing is very alive and well in New Jersey. It’s primarily family-owned businesses that are still here — not so much the big smoke stacks — so you don’t recognize that they’re here. But the small manufacturers are and they are growing, so we do have a lot of interest from manufacturers in finding them new locations so that they can grow. That has been a niche, but also because of the fact that we have export assistance grants (through the New Jersey State Trade Expansion Program), we have been able to help manufacturers grow so that they need new sites.
We also find that there’s a lot in logistics and warehousing. … And the other is with food manufacturing.
RENJ: Do you see the role expanding for the agency, or is there any way that you’d like to expand it beyond what it currently does?
MW: I think that our role is very large because I’m talking about retaining every single solitary company that exists now in New Jersey. That’s a big role, so my goal is to reach every one of them so that they know we’re here. So the more companies I reach, the more cases we’ll have. And the better I think people will feel about New Jersey because my experience is that they’re no different than any individual in that they want to be heard and they want you to know what their concerns are and they want you to make an effort. And even if you’re not able to solve their problems completely, they know they were heard. And I find that almost 100 percent of the time, even if you can’t deliver good news … they say thank you for listening. That’s what the Business Action Center does. We are there to hear them, to help them and hopefully to save them to the best of our ability.