Friday, February 8, 2008

County Planning Commission Launches Economic Study Task Force

The Lancaster County Planning Commission and a 120-member plenary task force met at Franklin & Marshall College, Friday morning, to begin to give form to what the Commission hopes will be a successful county-wide economic development plan, known as "Lancaster County - Our Economic Future - Strategies and Indicators."

Friday's meeting represented the first step in what will be a 2-year process of articulating areas of interest and concern, collecting and analyzing data, and then proposing solutions and implementation strategies.

"Lancaster County has always had a strong economy but what we've been lacking is solid data," Director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission James Cowhey said in an interview, adding that the purpose of the series of conferences is to attempt to generate something more substantive.

"Farming and tourism still seem to be vibrant, but are shifts in the local, regional, national, and global economies going to have an impact on those two sections of the Lancaster economy?," James Schultz, Co-Chair and Development Manager of Charter Homes and Neighborhoods, rhetorically asked the group.

"There is also some question as to whether our manufacturing base is shrinking," he said.

"Higher education and healthcare are playing a larger and larger role because of the leadership coming out of those institutions," he continued.

Scott Sheely, Executive Director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board, another speaker at the event, outlined the relevancy of the services his organization provides to the project at hand. The Workforce Investment Board, he explained, invests in key industries, including agriculture and food processing, health care, biotechnology, printing, construction, and others. It assists companies in these sectors to become more productive with workforce training, innovation, and targeted investment.

Dr. Myron Orfield, President of the Minnesota-based Ameregis Corporation, gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining some broad countywide trends and potential focus areas.

One trend is that "the city is losing approximately 1% of its households annually, while the boroughs and townships are gaining roughly 6%," Orfield said.

"The sprawl rate is greater than might be expected given the number of local governmental units in the region."

He also said, "Schools and School Districts are wonderful indicators for economies," adding that "One-third of children in the County qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches."

"Lancaster is a very white community," Orfield continued, "and this level of racial segregation is not something to look forward to."

"Communities who have populations that are rising faster than commercial growth lose tax capacity," he warned.

"Economic development is not simply about the city and its immediate suburbs - all areas can benefit," he concluded.

Toni Collari, Director of F&M's 'Local Economy Center," expressed concern, during public comment, that certain areas that are being "relegated in consideration" to secondary roles warrant closer attention, including "fairness, quality of life, and social justice issues."

"Quality of life issues," he said, "are at least as important as workforce training."

The Planning Commission task force, which met in full Friday, breaks down into "think tanks," which will consider particular subject areas and report to the group on their concerns and proposals over the coming weeks and months.

Among the groups and members present, a key theme that emerged is the problem of fragmentation of leadership and decision-making, and the importance of inter-municipal cooperation to implement a unified vision.

"We often talk about comprehensive planning," Planning Commission member Ray D'Agostino admitted, "but I'm not sure that it really is all that comprehensive."

He added, "I have plans on my shelf that just sit there, as I'm sure many of you do- we can't let that happen."

David Rusk, whose impressive resume includes having been the mayor of Albuquerque and a visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam, is on the Ameregis team sought out by the Planning Commission for their guidance and expertise.

"So many of us in our roles in this community live in little silos and we don't reach out beyond those to people in other silos," he offered.

"Regions that know how to collaborate together succeed."