Under the Radar, Above the Fray: A Look At The New Jersey Economic Development Authority

Steve Adubato talks with Caren Franzini, the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, about her vision and leadership.

Caren Franzini, stepping down this month as chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, served under governors of both parties and facilitated many projects that have helped the state.
Patti Sapone/The Star-Ledger.

For the past 18 years, Caren Franzini has served as CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Under her dynamic leadership, the EDA has an impressive record of helping businesses of all shapes and sizes get financing. The Atlantic City native, architect of so many deals that have helped the state, is stepping down this month. She will be missed. 

You’ve been with the EDA since 1991. What do you feel are your greatest accomplishments?

One is the EDA’s ability to remain flexible and react quickly to changing marketplace needs. For example, 21 years ago, we were limited in what we could offer biotech and technology companies. Now we have financial and real estate programs to support the industry’s growth. That is a tribute to EDA as an organization, but also to the governors and legislators who have recognized the increasingly competitive marketplace New Jersey businesses operate in. I am proud of our efforts around technology, and also our efforts to support small business and community development. 

You served seven governors from both parties.  How did you remain above the partisan fray? 

Every governor wants to retain and create jobs, and they look to the EDA as the financial bank of the state to do that.  The EDA is made up of a highly professional team of bankers, financial analysts and real estate developers who take a unique approach to every matter and ensure that we are doing the right thing for the state. 
 
How did growing up in Atlantic City influence your career? 

It had a huge impact. My parents and my aunt and uncle owned a clothing business in Atlantic City, so I started selling at the age of 10. You learn to listen and understand the needs of your customer. This was key to my understanding the business community. Growing up in the ’60s, I watched the neighborhood I loved become a place of hopelessness, so I set out to try to make a difference. Community development is close to my heart, and I think it is natural to react to your surroundings.
 
Some people say the best thing government can do for business is stay out of the way. 

I think they are right.  We shouldn’t get involved in telling a company how to run a business. At the EDA, we focus on retaining and creating jobs and encouraging private investment in our economy.   The EDA is able to help businesses grow by creating public-private partnerships to bridge financing gaps, increase access to capital and make projects viable.
 
What are the biggest challenges facing the EDA?  

Based on what is happening in the national economy,  businesses are not as comfortable expanding or buying new equipment. Through the Partnership for Action, we have been working to [tell] businesses about the significant tax and regulatory changes that have been advanced. 

How does Governor Christie approach business, especially given a challenging economy? 

This administration clearly gets it. Changes including sun-setting the corporate tax surcharge, coupled with property tax cap and pension reform, sent a very clear message. These long-term, structural changes will help New Jersey and our businesses remain competitive.
 
Anything you wish you had done but didn’t or couldn’t?

One of the most important lessons I learned in community development is that the impact of our investments may not be apparent for years.  The EDA has been given more tools to better support community development, but I wish we had some of these programs in the early ’90s, because then I’d see more results today.  In recent years, there has been an uptick in redevelopment; I do hope to get invited for future groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings.

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