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Revitalized Perry County authority takes new steps forward

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From left are Perry County Commissioner Paul Rudy; business owner Kevin Fitzpatrick; Martha Roberts. chairwoman of the Perry County Economic Development Authority; and Michelle Jones, the authority's economic development administrator. They were among more than 20 county residents at a volunteer workshop March 30 in New Bloomfield, where they learned how to conduct interviews with local businesses as part of a business retention and expansion plan.
From left are Perry County Commissioner Paul Rudy; business owner Kevin Fitzpatrick; Martha Roberts. chairwoman of the Perry County Economic Development Authority; and Michelle Jones, the authority's economic development administrator. They were among more than 20 county residents at a volunteer workshop March 30 in New Bloomfield, where they learned how to conduct interviews with local businesses as part of a business retention and expansion plan. - (Photo / )

The Perry County Economic Development Authority was established in 1973, but until recently, it wasn't very active in promoting what its name suggests. Under County Commissioner Paul Rudy, though, the PCEDA has undergone major changes in recent years to establish it as a driving force in Perry County.

Rudy started by restructuring the EDA’s board of directors. In 2014, he expanded it from seven people to a maximum of 21. Currently, 19 Perry County residents sit on the board.

“They’re all very involved people in our community, and [Rudy] just did a really good job stacking the board for success and growth,” said Michelle Jones, the EDA’s part-time economic development administrator and its only paid staff member.

Jones was hired last May after the authority was awarded a rural business development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She credits Martha Roberts, the EDA’s chairwoman since November 2015, along with Rudy, for helping the EDA get on its feet with adequate funding.

Much of the past year has been spent establishing the foundation for a stronger EDA, Jones said, through building a website, opening a New Bloomfield office, creating a tourism center, exploring grants and discussing other changes. The goal is for the office to serve as a physical resource for both county residents and visitors.

The new and improved EDA also aims to create a strategic plan for growing Perry County’s economy and sustaining its population.

“Economic development is really important to me ... I think there’s a lot of indicators that we need to get a little bit focused so we can make sure that we have a solid foundation in terms of our tax base,” Rudy said.

He cited a number of factors, including decreasing enrollment in schools and an aging population, a common but threatening problem for a small county like Perry. Plus, it has the third-highest out-migration among counties in rural Pennsylvania, particularly among people between the ages of 18 and 40.

As the EDA moves forward, a number of projects are underway to gauge the best approach for development in the county, including an economic assessment through Penn State Extension, a branding survey, and a business retention and expansion plan.

Derek Whitesel lives in Perry County and is executive director of Harrisburg Young Professionals. He also sits on the board of the Perry County Economic Development Authority.
Derek Whitesel lives in Perry County and is executive director of Harrisburg Young Professionals. He also sits on the board of the Perry County Economic Development Authority. - ()

One key consideration informing the process is balancing the competing viewpoints of residents and business owners. There are two camps, Rudy said. One wants nothing to change, and “then there’s the other camp that wonders why they have to drive over the mountain to shop,” he said.

Jones mentioned recent roundtable discussions with about 70 people from around the county who represented a range of its population, from farmers to school administrators to politicians. The meeting was a productive step in the branding survey that will wrap up in the spring.

Another component of development the EDA is pursuing is maximizing underutilized spaces, like business parks in Duncannon and Buffalo Crossing in Howe Township. Rudy is particularly excited about the possibility of two medical marijuana facilities in Perry County that are in the midst of the state-run application process. If approved, the new facilities will not only bring more medical options closer to residents but could create up to 100 jobs after a few years, according to Rudy.

Focusing on strengths

After researching similar rural communities around the country, Roberts has become a proponent of asset-based development, in which economic growth comes from embracing and enhancing existing resources. According to Roberts during a March phone interview, Perry County’s 1,416 farms, 700 businesses, a number of historical sites, covered bridges, and other recreational destinations to attract people to the county will be important to the EDA’s efforts.

“Economic development in a rural county doesn’t have the same definition that it does in a more urban area ... I think that most of us choose to live here because we really do like the open spaces,” Roberts said.

Despite differences between the “Perry County mindset” and an urban/suburban one, the EDA board also values the symbiotic relationship with its more developed neighbors, Cumberland and Dauphin counties. Board member and Harrisburg Young Professionals executive director Derek Whitesel sees himself as a liaison between the two worlds.

“It’s neat to be able to work in both of those. There’s certainly connections and contacts both in Harrisburg and Perry County that when we’re able to create good collaborations and partnerships then both will benefit,” said Whitesel, who recently moved from Harrisburg to Marysville with his wife and young child.

That mindset of collective benefit runs throughout the board, including with Perry County business owner Kevin Fitzpatrick. Appointed to the EDA board in January, Fitzpatrick has been running an executive search firm, CNESTA Group, out of Perry County for over three years. Fitzpatrick’sdecision to become involved with the EDA was based less on what it could do for his business and more on how he could help improve the county.

After relocating to the area from Philadelphia nine years ago, Fitzpatrick was one of the original founders of the Perry County Chamber. The company he worked for went down during the recession, and when Fitzpatrick started CNESTA Group in December 2013, “I began to recommit my effort in the local community.”

Although many of Fitzpatrick’s clients are outside Perry County, he thinks it’s a great place to live and work and cares about its success.

“I believe that businesses could come into this area and find a very strong, loyal, hardworking and dedicated employee base, and together with them, we can grow the local economy at a much higher level,” Fitzpatrick said.

His EDA colleagues share that community-oriented spirit.

“If one of us fails, we all come in and say, ‘What can we do to help?’ If one of us succeeds, we all clap and say, ‘Congratulations! And let’s move forward.’”

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