Is Lebanon County the midstate's best-kept secret?
Economic development officials and planners think so. After listing numerous assets, the Lebanon County Comprehensive Plan of 2007 states that one of the greatest threats to the county's growth is "anonymity," and the retiring president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp. told the Business Journal last week that "image" remains a challenge.
It shouldn't be that way. Like all of the midstate, Lebanon County enjoys prime access to the major markets of the East Coast. Indeed, geographically, it is the eastern gateway to the midstate.
Moreover, wages in Lebanon County are competitive, employers and workers have access to training opportunities as well as higher education, and the county has the physical room to grow.
Yet the planning document notes the lack of venture capital and financing options for businesses, and the LVEDC's Charles Blankenship says the organization he leads has been actively battling the impression that the county is unsophisticated and "not business-like."
While it's true that the average educational level of the workforce is below that of the midstate generally, and nearly 70 percent of the county's land use remains forest and agricultural, economic development during Blankenship's tenure has been just the opposite of "unsophisticated."
In recent years, the LVEDC has successfully pursued a recruitment strategy that, interestingly, is rooted in the county's German heritage. Blankenship notes in his interview on page 3 that Lebanon has an unusually high proportion of foreign investment for a county its size and that much comes from companies based in Germany. Major global names like Bayer and Schott AG operate in Lebanon County, and their experiences have helped the LVEDC to develop productive relationships with other German companies.
But room to grow may be the county's greatest asset at the moment. Here, too, the LVEDC is seeking creative solutions. With its three industrial parks — one of which has prized rail access — LVEDC is facing the reality that businesses looking to expand or relocate want move-in-ready facilities. That's something the county lacks. So the LVEDC is exploring whether building on spec is a good idea.
That's a major step away from the old economic development model of providing infrastructure and land for someone else to build on — one that shifts more of the risk away from the hosted business onto local entities.
But absent private developers (which always would be preferable), the option must be carefully weighed. Flexibility is a vital requirement today for most companies to compete. To compete itself, Lebanon County must stay ahead of the curve or acquiesce to its reputation as backward.