SOMERVILLE – Gov. Phil Murphy ended one of the state’s long-running arguments Thursday.
As a matter of law, Central Jersey exists.
The governor signed a bill that will require the state’s tourism division to redraw its maps to include Central Jersey, a region of the state considered mythical by many at New Jersey’s southern and northern extremes.
“Today, we will settle the debate once and for all: Central Jersey exists, period,” Murphy said during the bill signing at a historical site in Somerville.
At a minimum, the new tourism map must include Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, and Mercer counties. It’s not clear whether the map will include other geographically central areas like Monmouth County.
The bill separately requires state tourism officials to remove grant rules requiring funds to be targeted at people a minimum distance away from the site and to promote overnight stays in the region. The bill takes effect on Nov. 22.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset) said the bill is about “opportunity.”
“This bill signing is not merely about cartography. It’s not merely about how to print up new maps,” he said. “This is about supporting our local businesses. This is about fairness for those businesses and seeing them thrive. This is about the families that want to see this area remain as bucolic as it is today.”
New Jersey’s tourism economy took a sharp downward turn amid pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, falling $17 billion dollars in 2020, a 37% decrease from the $46.4 billion in tourism spending recorded in 2019.
The industry has largely recovered from its pandemic slump, and tourism revenue is expected to hit $49 billion in 2023, eclipsing prepandemic values for the first time.
But that recovery may be uneven. Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) said Central Jersey’s tourism economy is still performing roughly 20% below where it was before the COVID-19 crisis.
“When we talk about declaring Central Jersey existing, this is really about economic development in our area, so I’m grateful,” said Zwicker, the bill’s prime sponsor.
Officials also see the legislation as a means of boosting the state’s heritage tourism. New Jersey hosted more Revolutionary War battles and engagements than any other state in the union — including the Battles of Princeton and Trenton, among numerous others.
The bill signing was held a stone’s throw from Somerville’s Old Dutch Parsonage and the Wallace House, which hosted George Washington’s wartime headquarters.
Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh, who owned the house, later served in the U.S. Senate and was a founder of Queen’s College, now known as Rutgers University.
“Starting today, we’re taking a new step in sharing those wonders with the whole wide world,” Murphy said.
Others were simply pleased to see their homes get some recognition.
“It’s a pleasure to be in a place that finally formally exists, and you knew it existed all your life,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “It was a revelation of sorts when we finally passed a bill saying the place that I grew up in and I’ve lived in all of my life actually existed. It’s a remarkable occurrence.”