Laying the groundwork for future economic growth starts at the ground level — literally — in Dauphin County.
Over the last few years, county officials have implemented a number of new initiatives aimed at improving local infrastructure and tackling blighted housing stock.
In 2013, Dauphin County was the first in the state to take money from state gas taxes to create a county infrastructure bank. That program was created in partnership with the state Department of Transportation’s Pennsylvania Infrastructure Bank, which has done $110 million in loans since its inception in 1998.
Infrastructure banks make low-interest loans to local governments and private entities to help with transportation improvement projects. The Dauphin County program — still the only county in Pennsylvania with such a program — has lent money to eight municipal projects so far.
“We hope to keep it going depending on the outcomes and success of the program,” said George Connor, executive director of the Dauphin County Office of Community and Economic Development.
But officials see a long road ahead.
The county initially committed about $1 million in seed money, hoping to leverage an additional $30 million from the state infrastructure bank over three years.
Also in 2013, Dauphin County was the first in the state to create a land bank authority. Land banks are designed to acquire, manage and market vacant and tax-foreclosured properties. The goal is to clean up title on these properties — often acquired through tax sales or a county’s repository of unsold properties — and get them back into productive use.
Since it was created, the county land bank has done two projects in Susquehanna Township, with others in the works in the Harrisburg area.
Both initiatives have drawn interest from community leaders across the state who want to hear about the lessons learned in Dauphin County, Connor said. He mentioned at least one planned speaking engagement in western Pennsylvania to discuss the land bank.
“Dauphin County is on the forefront of looking at alternative options to issues out there,” said Andrew Kenworthy, vice president of Swatara Township-based Herbert Rowland & Grubic Inc., one of the top companies in the county and also its engineer. “The county is providing programs that can assist where local municipalities can put up some funding and get assistance. In turn, that improves Dauphin County.”
Other counties have explored the infrastructure bank partnership, PennDOT officials said.
These efforts help keep taxes relatively low, as do the county’s gaming grants, which come from a share of slot-machine revenue generated by Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course. The gaming funds help municipalities pay for improvements to infrastructure and facilities, as well as emergency services and public safety needs.
“Infrastructure improvements are required just about everywhere,” Kenworthy said.
About 80 percent of HRG’s current workload comes from municipalities across the state. Before the recession, the majority of the firm’s work was for the private sector, he said, adding it is swinging back again with warehouse and housing projects on the rise.
But municipalities, over the long run, will always have infrastructure items that need to be addressed, including stormwater and wastewater management, Kenworthy said. Federal mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where stormwater runoff from Central Pennsylvania often winds up, has prompted municipalities to look at imposing stormwater management fees to pay for rising infrastructure costs.
Dauphin County has been taking steps to help municipalities reduce flood insurance premiums for residents in flood-prone areas through the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System.
The biggest challenge in all these efforts is raising awareness in the local business community.
State and federal issues, especially in Harrisburg, the county seat of Dauphin County, often get more attention because the impact is greater.
Lengthy state budget impasses and disagreements over funding education-related construction projects resonate more with some of the county’s largest private employers, who are in construction and do a lot of their business outside of the county.
But H. Glenn “Bub” Manning, principal of Harrisburg-based Quandel Construction Group Inc., said he does see potential in the county land bank, calling it “pretty creative.”
Manning also recognizes the role the county plays in other business initiatives, including those led by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp.
The county supports CREDC’s capital campaign, which supports a number of programs, including business lending and grant packaging and site selection services.
“They put their money where their mouth is,” Manning said.
Looking ahead, Connor said his office will be working with CREDC and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission to create a new economic development plan to better retain and attract businesses in a variety of industry clusters. Efforts will include meeting with municipalities to study their strengths and the types of companies already there.
Connor said the plan, which could be ready next year, will look at everything from life sciences, education and medical to food processing, advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, logistics and supply chain, tourism, technology support and financial services.
The county also will be updating its housing plan to assess affordable housing needs, which could open the door for new development.