Why you should care about Cumberland County’s draft economic plan

“Oh, great, another meeting. Another report.” How often we all probably think that. But hear me out on this one.

The Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation has scheduled three informational meetings to discuss the proposed Strategic Economic Development Plan for Cumberland County with members of the public.

If you live in the county, work in the county, do business in the county or have any stake in the economic life of the West Shore and its environs, you’ll want to attend.

And before you attend, you’ll probably want to read what CAEDC and its draft report have to say about the county’s future, given that the document is intended to guide the county’s economic development philosophy and activity for many years to come, under CAEDC’s guidance.

Its overall goals are to increase the commercial and industrial tax base; to increase median income and opportunities for the broadest possible number of residents; and to maintain a diversified industrial base as the business landscape changes.

Read, and you will learn that the draft identifies six industry “clusters” for attraction, retention and expansion: tourism, agribusiness, transportation and warehousing, health care and social assistance, manufacturing and professional industries.

Of those, agribusiness seems to have special focus, based on a presentation CAEDC officials made during a visit to the Business Journal this week by CEO Jonathan Bowser, COO Shireen Farr and Communications Manager Kristen Rowe.

Planning framework

OK, here’s the bureaucratic bit.

Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Planning Code requires counties to develop and adopt a comprehensive plan. Land use and conservation provisions are common elements of such plans, which often snag the most news coverage, but economic development is another critical component, considering how “economic development opportunities will drive land use trends, infrastructure requirements, workforce needs, housing demand and natural resource protetcion,” according to CAEDC.

While the various components of a county’s comprehensive plan are designed to achieve a coordinated overall vision for the future, they are not always updated at the same time.

According to CAEDC, the economic development chapter of Cumberland’s plan was last updated in 2003. Other chapters, such as land use and transportation, were amended in 2012.

Planning for the draft economic development report began in 2014, and incorporated consultation with representatives of the educational, business and governmental sectors. It also incorporates the results of a Penn State University countywide economic assessment study.

The result is a fascinating glimpse into the county’s economic life.

Before it can be implemented, however the document will require a recommendation from the Cumberland County Planning Commission and the county commissioners.

The matter will come before the planning commission during a 7:30 a.m. meeting on Oct. 15.

The public information meetings will be:

• Oct. 21: Upper Allen Township Building, 100 Gettysburg Pike, Mechanicsburg, 8–10 a.m.

• Oct. 22: North Middleton Township Building, 2051 Spring Road, Carlisle, 4–6 p.m.

• Nov. 2: Vigilant Hose Company, 20 Walnut Bottom Road, Shippensburg, 4–6 p.m.

Why it matters

A lot has changed in the county over the past 12 years, not least the approach to coordinating planning and development, with the founding of CAEDC in 2005.

The report highlights many of these changes and key statistics

Retail remains the largest employing industry, with a 12 percent share. Health care and social assistance represent 10 percent of all jobs, while transportation and warehousing weighs in at 9 percent.

But other sectors are clearly on the rise, notably agribusiness.

Employment in agriculture, forestry, fishing and related industries rose 23 percent from 2003 to 2012, with a 16 percent growth in earnings.

Over the same period, farming saw a 16 percent growth in earnings and a 23 percent growth in employment, at a time when farm employment rose by only 4 percent for the state as a whole.

That’s why CAEDC has its eye on nurturing that sector, citing soil quality and proximity to “the existing base of food manufacturing, packaging, and distribution opportunities.”

What CAEDC seems bent on not doing is creating a document that will be passed by politicians and placed on a shelf. They pledge that the business-attraction efforts will be monitored, with results analyzed at five-year intervals.

Other strategies will include collection of data on labor and industry trends, creation of business-retention programs and military facility support and retention activities.

This draft also arrives against the backdrop of Cumberland County’s recent decision to withdraw from the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which also included Dauphin and Perry counties.

Cumberland officials stress that they remain willing to cooperate with Dauphin and Perry counties — as they do with other neighboring counties — but just didn’t feel that paying for the commission’s services was worth what they received in return.

Whether you agree or disagree with that decision, what is clear is that Cumberland County officials have been responding to their county’s dramatic growth with the enhancement of their own planning staff and activities.

According to the report, U.S. Census figures show that Cumberland County has had the state’s fastest population growth since 2010. Estimated at 243,762 people in 2014, it’s projected to hit 282,921 by 2030.

For a county that encompasses diversity ranging from suburban dormitory communities to rural farmlands and industrial parks, the potential for change is dramatic. That puts great pressure on planners, but also great power into their hands.

Once passed, the report will be a critical blueprint not just for the planning office, but for CAEDC as it advises planners and others on matters of local economic policy, including the distribution of financing and incentives.

Your thoughts matter. Educate yourself on this plan. Go talk to the experts. Tell them what you believe your community needs to succeed, and how this report can help Cumberland County reach those goals.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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