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Spotlight: Gloucester County--The First 100 Days

by Samantha Melamed
Heather Simmons, who in January took over New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney’s seat on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders, has made local business a top priority.

The words “Board of Freeholders” may not exactly conjure images of glamour. But Heather Simmons—Gloucester County’s newest freeholder and only the sixth woman ever to hold that role—is working hard to make the job look downright exciting.

In just over six months in office, the liaison to the departments of economic development and public works has helped forge a groundbreaking partnership between Gloucester County College and Rowan University that will enable nursing students at GCC to graduate with Rowan bachelor’s degrees; she’s been leading small business summits at towns throughout the county to tap into the issues facing business owners; and, she’s working to revive the county’s dormant revolving loan fund, which would provide a low interest financing option for local businesses.

A public relations executive and owner of Heather Simmons Communications LLC, Simmons says her professional experience has eased her transition into public life. “My background helps me to frame these discussions about rising costs, taxes, the cost of education and running government in such a way that it makes sense to people,” she says. “And as a county elected official, you’re so close to individuals and their personal challenges that you are talking to them every day.”

Simmons, who won an uncontested Democratic primary this summer and will seek election to a full term in November, says assisting business people has been a top priority—particularly very small companies, (with five or fewer workers), which comprise 74 percent of the county’s 16,000 businesses. “We’ve been gathering small business owners and talking to them about programs available to help make running a small business more sustainable and affordable,” she says. “When we talk to them about federal, state and county programs available to help offset the cost of hiring employees and using sustainable energy, it’s surprising to me how many people aren’t aware of these programs.”

Simmons says the county revolving loan fund could soon become another option, offering funds of $1,000 to $35,000 in partnership with a local bank partner. The county is currently working to negotiate a lower-than-market-rate interest for the program, she says.

As well, Simmons says, she’s been focusing on fostering green industry in the county, including participating in recruiting a windmill manufacturer into the Port of Paulsboro, working to erect 34 solar-powered traffic signals across the county, and investigating grant funding to power some of the county’s fleet of vehicles with compressed natural gas, a domestically produced fuel that she says is half the price of gasoline. “South Jersey Industries approached us and said that they were working with some local fleets and are at the beginning stages of developing a pumping station in Glassboro,” she notes. The county is looking to collaborate in that initiative, she explains.

Simmons, who lost by a narrow 115 votes in her first bid for Freeholder last year, will no doubt face another tough race in a county where Republicans have made headway recently. She’s preparing herself for the challenge.

“It’s a sharp learning curve and there’s a lot involved in running county government,” she says. “My commitment is to make sure I know as much about this as possible.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 7 (July, 2011).
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