Planners examine ‘threads’ that bolster the area’s economy
The local economy was highlighted this past week by the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Community Development as it rolled out its second of eight presentations about the draft of the new county comprehensive plan.
Jenny Picciano, lead planner, and Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning, described seven components related to the local economy.
They are in the areas of agriculture; manufacturing; transportation, warehousing, logistics and fulfillment; small business development; tourism; natural resources; and cultural resources.
“We’re trying to focus the county comprehensive plan on the opportunities
that lie ahead,” Wheeler said. “Really, what we’re talking about when we talk about economy is how to make our county more competitive.”
The components are so varied because that variety lends itself to new opportunities, she added.
“We don’t want to focus on any one particular component and put all our eggs in one basket,” Wheeler said. “We’re looking for those threads of opportunity. We’re focusing on enhancing our assets.”
Agriculture takes up a significant portion of land use in the county, about 20 percent, and adds to county citizens’ perception of quality of life, Picciano said.
“Agriculture isn’t going away,” she said. “People see the forests, see the working landscape. That is something that people feel connected to as part of their heritage.
But the county’s agricultural community isn’t without its challenges, she said. Local, regional and national forces are at play, from issues with permitting to getting products to market.
“Trying to find ways to make agriculture more profitable is always helpful, but some of those things are beyond our control at the land-use level,” Picciano said. “We’ve outlined a couple of strategies there, and most of those things are trying to find ways to improve flexibility.”
One such way is to allow agricultural buildings such as barns to be used as event venues where it’s appropriate, such as the wedding venue Herman and Luther’s Historic Barn on Route 87 in Montoursville.
“The goal would be to make agricultural lands more profitable so those barns can stay in agricultural use in the future,” she said.
Wheeler said the county has a great manufacturing foundation, despite a decline in industry.
“We don’t want to focus on the decline. We want to focus on continuing to enhance that industry and the ability to support it, because there are new, emerging components,” she said.
Specifically, the plastics industry may present an opportunity for the county with “cracker plants,” Picciano said.
These plants are petrochemical plants where a component of natural gas, ethane, is super-heated until the molecule “cracks” into ethylene, which is then turned into plastic pellets for use in a variety of plastic goods, according to The Allegheny Front, a public radio program covering the construction of one such plant in Beaver County.
The Beaver County plant, owned by Shell, will be the first of its size in the Marcellus Shale region.
“And there may be more, several more, in the coming years,” Wheeler added. “We have, already, a foothold, not only in the industry, but we have one of three plastics training programs in the country here at Pennsylvania College of Technology.”
Because of the county’s growth area, which follows the river, being situated along essential roads with easy access to western New York, “we’re well-situated” to serve as a shipment, fulfillment and logistics center for much of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the country, Picciano and Wheeler said. They expect road and rail conditions along with improvements at the Williamsport Regional Airport to help the county capture a growing market in the transportation industry.
“We do expect that to continue to grow,” Picciano said.
Wheeler added that, according to a state Department of Transportation analysis, Lycoming County already is home to one of the top 100 freight-generating areas in the state, referring primarily to the Reach Road Industrial Park.
“Undoubtedly, this sector represents an opportunity for economic growth within the county. The key will be to find a balance between the development of this industry and mitigating impacts such as traffic congestion and noise while ensuring community character and small-town living can be maintained,” the draft reads.
Small businesses, firms that employ fewer than 500 employees, provide about 50 to 60 percent of employment in the county, Picciano said.
The draft notes an increase in independent inventors, designers and tinkerers, known as the “maker movement,” which has embedded itself in the county particularly in the form of small restaurants and craft breweries as well as in the many shops taking up space in the Pajama Factory in Williamsport.
Millennials are bringing the social entrepreneurial movement of the B-Corporation to the forefront, according to the draft.
A B-Corporation subordinates profits to social and environmental goals. It’s become a nationwide trend and is growing within the county.
However, many would-be business owners list the biggest obstacles to starting their own organizations as lack of funding and the know-how of running a business, according to the draft.
Wheeler said that’s where organizations such as Lock Haven’s Small Business Development Center, for which there is a satellite office at the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, come in. The center provides start-up business support and assistance with business financial planning. It also works with local banks and SEDA-Council of Governments to help start-up companies gain access to capital.
The Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania, with whom the chamber is now partnering, also supports non-profit and small business efforts, Wheeler said.
Small businesses of all types can work with the PA Wilds Center to build connections with each other for mentoring and business-to-business marketing opportunities.
“Understanding the needs and the growth opportunities of the small business sector in Lycoming County is essential in order to provide a sustainable path for economic resilience and the ability to develop additional strongholds in the economy,” the draft reads.
Tourism and culture
Though tourism, natural and cultural resources each have their own place within the draft, Picciano said the three are deeply related and flow into each other.
“Tourism still is a significant driver for the economy,” she said. “People are coming to the region not just for Little League, but for hunting and fishing in areas like Pine Creek, stuff like that.”
She said everyone has their own reasons for visiting the area and those reasons could fall into natural or cultural resources.
Tourists are attracted to things like outdoor recreation, which is enhanced by the county’s natural resources and beauty, but the county’s rich history and culture also is a big draw.
“What we were really pleasantly surprised to see is that people were voting cultural resources — basically, historic buildings and cultural sites — as a high priority,” Wheeler said. “People are concerned with the loss of cultural and heritage assets.”
Though tourism is a big money-maker for the county, natural and cultural resources also are important to county residents, helping to provide the quality of life that keeps them here, Wheeler said.
“The quality of life in Lycoming County continues to be a recognized, significant factor of why people choose to live here and why they remain here,” she said.
The draft also includes project ideas to help encourage economic growth countywide.
One idea is to create a community development fund, to be used as a “consistant pot of money” designated for community and economic development projects, Picciano said.
It would be used to help pursue and successfully receive competitive state and federal funding for qualifying projects, she added.
“When we have a project in the City of Williamsport or Jersey Shore or Muncy, and they need a pot of money or some seed funding to do the project, the idea is to have this community development fund available to leverage state and local funds,” she said.
Another is to organize a coordinated economic development team, which could include partners such as the chamber, municipalities, water and sewer authorities and others.
“The idea behind this is to bring in experts on community and economic development to deliver economic development projects where they make more sense,” Picciano said.