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CPBJ Extra Blog

A high-stakes game: The battle for manufacturing

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It was close to five years ago in the early summer of 2009 when I got a call while walking to work at 6 a.m.: Carlisle Tire and Wheel was packing up and moving south.

The venerable Carlisle factory was a prominent employer for many decades. While the end came suddenly, with a hasty announcement that day by plant managers, the backroom dealmaking had been brewing for months.

Omar Shute, then-Cumberland County economic development director, didn't mince words about why a major Carlisle employer was lost to Tennessee.

"They got a sweetheart deal from the state of Tennessee that we couldn't even come close to matching as a state," he said after the announcement.

While others made stronger comments and vowed to fight to keep the company local, nothing changed. Carlisle Tire and Wheel finished up its production schedule here and off it went.

As the five-year anniversary of that date approaches, redevelopment efforts haven't yielded much at the former plant. Plans have surfaced calling for the site to be used for residential housing, senior housing/assisted-living, medical arts/office and limited neighborhood convenience retail.

But nothing concrete is in the works.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Corbett's office struck a deal of its own recently when its combination of tax cuts and other incentives paved the way for Nordstrom Inc. to build an East Coast fulfillment center in Lancaster County. The deal means a $79 million construction investment and 369 jobs.

Construction started Monday, according to Nordstrom, a Seattle-based fashion specialty retailer. The facility is expected to open in the summer of 2015 at the Conewago Industrial Park in West Donegal Township just outside Elizabethtown.

Construction of the 672,000-square-foot building — which includes an additional 470,000-square-foot mezzanine — will be handled by H&M Co. Inc. of Jackson, Tenn.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development said it has approved a number of grants for the project, including:

• $1.107 million from the Pennsylvania First Program for investment and job creation,

• $1.107 million in job creation tax credits and

• $166,050 to train a new workforce.

While Pennsylvania seems to be the winner this time, that's not entirely true. The competition for manufacturing jobs is so fierce, it often pits communities against one another within a region.

In this case, Lebanon County came up short with its Lebanon Valley Distribution Center location in Bethel Township. Officials there are seemingly doing all the right things to bring in needed manufacturers and distributors.

For example, a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance designation was approved for the site, which is close to the Interstate 81/78 hub.

A LERTA designation allows property tax abatement on improvements to the property over a designated period of time. In addition, Lebanon economic development officials aggressively courted Nordstrom.

But in the end, it wasn't enough.

Joe Achenbach, a senior associate at Trammell Crow Co. outside Philadelphia, confirmed Tuesday the Bethel Township site was a finalist for the center. He would not comment on the prospects for the property with Nordstrom out of the picture.

Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow said via email Tuesday the Lancaster County location provided the best combination of availability of a local workforce to meet hiring needs, proximity to shipping hubs, and flexibility and space at the building.

"We appreciate the help we got from different areas who worked toward making this happen, but ultimately felt that (Elizabethtown) was the right spot for us," Darrow said.

The manufacturing chase is a bruising game, and coming in second place offers little solace and no rewards. Still, there's hope in Lebanon County.

With the easy access in any direction via I-81, I-83, I-78 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the transportation network is a natural bonus.

And there's new blood on the scene. In June, Susan Eberly was named president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp. Longtime Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce President Larry Bowman announced this week that he's retiring after 37 years.

With fresh ideas and enthusiasm in the mix, and attractive locations, the future of manufacturing and distribution in Lebanon County looks good.

Now county officials just need somebody to say yes.

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