Charles Blankenship will retire in May as president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp. after spending the better part of a decade in the post.
Blankenship, a Connecticut native, leveraged military service into a master of public administration degree from Penn State and began his career in economic development in Pennsylvania.
One of his major accomplishments while working for the state was the passage of the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance Act, he said.
He went on to lead economic development initiatives in other states, including redeveloping a former brass mill in Connecticut, turning around the airport in Newport News, Va., and becoming the first president of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corp. in Michigan.
While in Michigan, he also had the opportunity to go to Romania after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe to consult on the transition to free enterprise.
His return to the East Coast was motivated by family reasons, and he recently shared some insights on his time at the helm of the development corporation in Lebanon County.
Q: What eventually brought you back to the East Coast and to Lebanon County in particular?
A: Coming back to the East Coast was family driven … And the opportunity came up here. There were a number of opportunities, but this one was the most intriguing. It had so much involved in it. It had marketing, financing and real estate development involved in one organization … similar to my position in Michigan.
What do you see as your major accomplishments since coming here, and is there anything that might be undone?
I hesitate to say "my" accomplishments. There are things the corporation accomplished during my tenure. I was a part of it, but so was the board, so was the staff.
We developed a new industrial park, Hawk Acres Enterprise Place. We expanded Lebanon Valley Business Park, the Enterprise Court section, and completed construction of the Lebanon Rails Business Park. And (we) also constructed a new headquarters for the corporation.
There are three initiatives that have long-term impact that the corporation undertook.
One was moving into agricultural loans. We had been for a long time a lender to manufacturing … but we moved into agriculture, recognizing the importance agriculture has on the economy of Lebanon County, being a raw material for our food-production industry.
Another was moving into urban revitalization and making one of our goals the revitalization of the city (of Lebanon).
And another one, recognizing the importance of foreign investment in this county— we have an unusually large amount of foreign investment for a county our size — we developed an international marketing program to attract foreign investment (with the help of the state's international trade operations and the region's World Trade Center). The primary emphasis has been on Germany.
Is there any particular reason for Germany?
This area was founded by Germans. We also had the establishment of a number of German companies here, such as Bayer making aspirin and other over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and some other German companies.
It's been good for expansions. Both Bayer and Schott Pharmaceutical (Packaging) have expanded significantly. Regupol was a company that we visited there and now has a plant in our business park and plans expansion. And Fresenius (Medical Care) was the first company to go into our Hawk Acres Enterprise Place.
We're left with our single biggest impediment to attracting and growing more jobs: the lack of modern buildings. We have industrial park space to build new buildings, but we have very little inventory of (existing) modern industrial buildings.
I'm spending a good bit of my last five months here going over the feasibility of this corporation building speculative industrial buildings for lease. And that will again broaden our mission.
Industrial park is infrastructure: land, water lines, sewer lines, telephone lines and making industrial lots available for companies to build their own plant on. But we're finding that most of the companies responding to our marketing are looking for an existing building they can move into quickly.
How have things changed in your time in economic development?
The basics have been the same. What has changed, and I've seen the growing trend, is the influence of government regulation on development. And my career has become more and more one of fighting bureaucracy. There's just a growing list of regulations that have become more and more burdensome. The process has become a lot slower, a lot more expensive.
With your experience, do you see any new policies we could enact here in Pennsylvania?
There are a couple of things. One is to become a right-to-work state.
Another is to take a very serious look at regulation, particularly in the building-inspection process. You have to look at (the fact that) that there is an entire private sector involved in building inspection, and that's the insurance industry. You really can't build anything if you can't insure it, and a lot of the things that are being duplicated by government are already being done by private insurance.
What are the best business assets the Lebanon Valley has, and what are some of the things that need to be improved?
No. 1 that I've found here is what I call a craftsmen's workforce. Very reliable workforce with good skills. And I talk with companies here in the industrial parks and others. Once they hire someone, these people stay on for their career. Very little turnover and they are very productive.
We are fortunate to be in an area where there are a number of interstate highways and very good transportation access. And we're very fortunate to have a number of industrial parks. We have land to build on, we have the transportation access and we have the labor force.
What is the biggest impediment?
We had some focus groups, and we had an image (come to light) that is not correct that (the area) is unsophisticated, uneducated, not business-like. So we've worked on image a lot. And we've built our office building to help give our county a corporate image. We seem to be overcoming that. We always have to work on that.
Charles Blankenship was in the U.S. Marine Corps. and used the G.I. Bill to go to college, earning a master’s of public administration from Penn State.
He said he was recruited from there to be a program analyst for economic development programs in what was then the Pennsylvania Department of Commerce.
Blankenship’s first management job was after Hurricane Agnes in 1972. He became the director of the Bureau of Disaster Recovery where, he said, his instructions from the governor were to make loans and give recipients checks within 72 hours.
His last posting at the time in Pennsylvania was director of the Bureau of Economic Development before being recruited to jobs elsewhere in the country.
Blankenship said he’ll stay busy after he retires this year.
He’s signed on at Bucks County-based Delaware Valley College, where he’ll teach classes for MBA candidates who are on active military duty.
Blankenship also is director of a Web-based think tank called the Applied Government Studies Center.
Both activities, he said, allow him to pass on knowledge and experience he’s gained in his career.
Blankenship, 68, has been married to wife Kathy for 44 years. They have a daughter, Stefanie, and a granddaughter, Abigail.