Forward Together Lebanon unveils ‘roadmap for the future’ 

Paula Wolf//March 29, 2022

Forward Together Lebanon unveils ‘roadmap for the future’ 

Paula Wolf//March 29, 2022

Formed in the crucible of the pandemic, the Forward Together Lebanon team helped deliver information and resources to businesses often hanging on for dear life. 

Now, more than two years after the onset of COVID-19 and its unprecedented challenges, the group has produced an economic recovery blueprint – a document Susan Eberly called “a roadmap for the future.” 

The plan has identified a four-phase approach: responding, recovering, reimagining and rebuilding. 

Three primary areas – empowering small business, supporting the current and future workforce, and improving quality of place and livability – are addressed while recognizing others that need to be dealt with, too. 

Members of the eight-member Forward Lebanon task force, which includes business, nonprofit, health care and education leaders, wanted hard data on which to base their decisions and planning, said Eberly, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp. 

They also wanted community input, so meetings with stakeholders were a key part of the process, she said. 

And they sought the flexibility to revise the document as necessary to ensure that it reflects the current phases/stages of recovery, Eberly said. 

Team member Barb Kauffman helped launch the group’s website, forwardtogetherlebanon.com, to assist businesses and others in the community to navigate COVID-19. 

She said the website, also in Spanish, is quite comprehensive. “It has everything on it” and is user friendly. 

The key is to get information out quickly, said Kauffman, owner of Kauffman Creative Services marketing agency in Palmyra. 

“I won’t say it’s a rosy picture yet” but the business environment is improving, she said. “My clients are getting busier. Restaurants are picking up in my backyard.” 

‘Let’s invest in people’ 

Several items stand out in the report, Eberly said. One is the need for trust, confidence and communication. 

“This … came out loud and clear during the stakeholders’ meetings,” Eberly said. People want leadership to work together to tackle not only COVID challenges, but also Lebanon County’s social systemic challenges. 

For example, the document emphasized thar Latinx-owned businesses would benefit from stronger support and connection with existing resources. 

“The report clearly shows that an area of trust … was lacking due to not having diverse voices at the table,” Eberly said, requiring a renewed focus on that. 

Rafael Torres, a co-founder of the WEPA Empowerment Center, said COVID-19 further exposed these problems. 

The creation of Tec Centro Lebanon – a one-stop shop for job training and skills programs for the under- and unemployed, especially those facing a language barrier – will be part of the solution, he said. 

A similar center that’s an initiative of the Spanish American Civic Association has operated out of Lancaster. The Tec Centro Lebanon project was recently awarded $750,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money by the Lebanon County Commissioners. 

“Let’s invest in people,” Torres said. “We didn’t do that enough before.” 

As local employers buy into the Tec Centro workforce development model, program graduates will have access to better jobs with better wages, he said. 

According to the report, Lebanon County is particularly strong in agriculture, manufacturing, retail trade and transportation/warehousing. But small businesses, especially in hospitality, tourism and the arts, have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. 

Another conclusion of the blueprint is the need for a housing strategy. 

“Lebanon County has a shortage of affordable homes for its residents,” the report said, and its population is projected to grow 6% more in the next decade. “Housing availability is a major indicator of community and economic resilience,” and the last housing study was conducted in 2004. 

More than 54,000 households in the county are in poverty or within the ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) threshold. 

Household income levels of Black and Latinx residents are about two-thirds that of white and Asian residents in the county, similar to the dynamics regionally and statewide. 

Latinx residents also have experienced especially high levels of unemployment during COVID-19. 

In addition, Lebanon County residents have lower educational attainment levels compared with the region and the state, the report noted, with fewer having attended or graduated from higher education programs. 

And a gap is growing in quality childcare opportunities for working parents, too. 

What also comes through in the blueprint is the need to “reimagine what the new normal will look like,” Eberly said. 

During the pandemic, “to stand still was not an option,” she explained. “Sound decisions throughout every sector involved diversity in thought and creativity. That remains true for the recovery period. … As we focus on some core objectives, this new normal will start to have a life of its own.” 

Elco Superintendent Julia Vicente, a member of the Forward Together Lebanon team, said the county’s six superintendents “truly worked as one unit” during COVID-19. 

The problem-solving was constant. 

Now they’re talking about re-envisioning, she said, about what life is going to be like going forward in this new normal. 

Taking the opportunity to revise its strategic plan, Elco has started to draft goals. 

That includes creating a portrait of a graduate, determining what skills, traits and foundation that student should have to maximize future success. 

Also, teaching and learning absorbed a significant hit in the pandemic, and that gap must be closed, Vicente said. 

It’s about resilience, she said. “How do we support our students in overcoming obstacles?” 

“Our community’s changing so much,” Eberly said. “We have to come up with a vision to keep our county healthy.”