This past year we had the opportunity to work with three very different Pennsylvania communities — Berks County and the cities of Chester and Scranton — to develop strategic economic development plans.
Berks County, in the southeastern part of the state, is near Harrisburg, Allentown, and Lancaster. The county is a mix of urban and rural spaces holding Reading as its center, surrounded by smaller communities and picturesque agricultural and natural lands. The county is experiencing population growth, owing largely to the county’s Latinx population, which grew 48% over the past decade, while the majority of PA counties declined in population over the same period.
Berks County is a unique mix of urban and rural spaces including both the city of Reading and farming communities.
The city of Chester is the oldest in Pennsylvania, having been established in 1682, and is the largest majority-Black city in Pennsylvania. Chester is similar to other “rust belt” communities in that it saw steep deindustrialization beginning in the 1960s and suffered from high poverty and de-investment rates. Despite hosting Widener University, a casino, and a sports complex, the city has struggled to find strong economic footing. The city was first designated “economically distressed” in 1995 under Act 47 and due to further financial issues was placed into receivership in July 2020. Receivership is when the state appoints a manager with direct control over local finances to avoid bankruptcy.
Chester, once a manufacturing and shipbuilding hub, is working towards a brighter economic future. Photo: John Bullock, Widener University
On the other end of Act 47 designation, the city of Scranton, under the leadership of mayor Paige Gebhart Cognetti, left receivership in January 2022, and is charting a course towards a brighter economic future. Scranton has a long history of economic peaks and valleys, has seen exceptional growth driven by coal and manufacturing at the turn of the last century, declining fortunes through the post-war area as the city struggled to diversify away from its coal-based economy, leading to a long, slow recovery beginning in the 1990s.
National Problems, Local Solutions
Unsurprisingly, these communities are impacted by larger state and national trends including a lack of affordable housing, too few living wage jobs, difficulty finding and retaining skilled workers, slow business growth, and infrastructure challenges from public transit to broadband access. While our recommendations on addressing these challenges are specifically tailored to each community, some overarching principles from each can benefit any community.
Leveraging partnerships as catalysts for change
One of the most valuable parts of our engagement process is convening stakeholder groups. Often these meetings are the first time disparate groups have come together to co-create solutions to cross-cutting issues. Involving stakeholder groups from government and school board officials, social service agencies, business groups, neighborhood associations, non-profit organizations, and advocacy groups can generate buy-in to solutions at multiple levels, making implementation more successful. Including a diverse set of residents and small business owners - youth, new Americans, long-term and newer residents, and members of underrepresented groups - is critical to ensure any plan is inclusive and forward-looking.
Tapping into outdoor economy assets
Something each of these communities has in common is access to outdoor recreation assets that can be leveraged to spur economic development, attract residents and visitors, and improve quality of life. Even though Chester is located in a large urban context as part of the larger Philadelphia metro area, it sits along the Delaware River, offering opportunities to develop a vibrant riverfront. Redevelopment of the waterfront and downtown areas offers opportunities for building citywide walking and biking trails connected to the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile walking and biking trail that, when completed, will connect from Maine to Florida.
Chester has opportunities to leverage proximity to the East Coast Greenway and Delaware River. Photo: Daniel Paschall/East Coast Greenway Alliance
In Berks County, the Berks County Planning Commission, in partnership with the Berks
County Parks and Recreation Department is already updating the Berks County Greenway, Parks, and Recreation Plan. The plan focuses on health and wellness, inclusivity, conservation, environmental stewardship, technology, and economic development opportunities associated with trails and green spaces.
Montage Mountain and the historic Nay Aug Park in Scranton offer connections to nature and extensive recreation opportunities. Our findings, however, show that access to these amenities is not shared equally by all residents owing to limited public transportation and a high proportion of households without access to a vehicle. Scranton is working to improve public transit safety and availability and increase neighborhood walkability to ensure outdoor recreation assets are accessible to both residents and potential visitors.
Addressing housing needs and mismatches through land banks, trusts, and smart growth principles
As aging post-industrial cities, both Scranton and Chester have many delinquent and blighted properties and a lack of quality affordable housing. Land banks have the potential to address both issues through the formation of a public or nonprofit entity created to acquire, temporarily hold, and re-sell vacant properties to stabilize neighborhoods and encourage redevelopment. Properties are typically re-sold to qualified buyers below market rate to increase affordable housing stock. When the owner decides to sell, they agree to do so at a price that maintains the home’s affordability while benefiting from the equity they’ve gained during their ownership.
In Berks County, the city of Reading is also pursuing the establishment of a land bank to redevelop the riskiest properties that are not desirable to a developer. In addition to participation in the land bank, the county is also leading an initiative to promote development following smart growth principles – prioritizing a mix of building types and uses, as well as diverse housing and transportation options – to encourage and focus growth within urban centers and existing communities and is looking at adaptive reuse strategies to rehabilitate industrial buildings in main street corridors and municipalities across the county.
Investing in upskilling and education to improve economic mobility
Each of the three communities host institutes of higher education, including universities, colleges, and technical/trade schools, yet each struggles to attract and retain skilled workers. Programs and initiatives can be developed that actively try to meet the needs of local
employers, both large and small. Priorities should include: increasing connectivity with
job seekers, incentivizing local hiring, providing support in increasing wages, and increasing
local educational attainment.
Where workforce development strategies and resources already exist, strategies may need to be pursued that engage and educate employers to increase connectivity to and utilization of these resources. Communities may also need to create a more formal “front-door” to the workforce development support system, clearly mapping resources and entry points for job seekers. Where workforce development initiatives are lacking, targeted attraction and retention programs to match employer needs, including retention of college graduates and retiree workforce reentry programs, can help bolster talent pipelines.
To keep the talent pipeline full in the coming years, communities will need to look at strategies that target both retirees re-entering the workforce and younger workers who need to “skill up” into emerging industries.
In concert with these efforts, strategies that boost wages and increase access to affordable housing are essential to ensure such approaches are successful. Additionally, more can be done to support local talent and create a more robust sense of career trajectory for current students and existing members of the labor force, including a specific focus on diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging.
Promotion of business creation through small business and entrepreneurial resources, regulatory efficiencies, and incentives
Businesses face taxes, fees, and development costs in each of the three communities that pose business operations and entrepreneurship challenges. Scranton has successfully leveraged incentive programs such as Keystone Opportunity Zones that help combat some of these challenges. In Chester and Berks, programs such as the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA), or Tax Increment Financing (TIFs), are either underutilized or non-existent. These barriers stifle business development and startup entrepreneurship, limiting the economic potential that business activity brings.
To combat these challenges, communities should evaluate their licensing, inspection, permitting, zoning variance, and other processes beginning with an audit to determine areas to streamline, enhance, and improve. For each process, online application forms should be accessible and include a clear set of requirements (i.e., a checklist or toolkit) for businesses in the city.
Creating business accelerators and incubators such as Penn State-associated LaunchBox and Innovation Network can encourage entrepreneurship, help navigate startup barriers, and provide mentorship and guidance. Such initiatives can connect entrepreneurs to resources, bolster existing entrepreneurial ecosystems, and fundamentally change how individuals and struggling communities perceive themselves.
To learn more about these communities and the recommendations and promising practices we have outlined for each, see the Scranton Strategic Economic Development Plan, Chester Economic Competitiveness Plan, and the IMAGINE Berks Strategic Economic Development Action Plan.