Berks Commissioners Approve Economic Development Initiative
Berks County has approved a new initiative to help stimulate the local economy.
At an operations meeting on Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to support the IMAGINE Berks Strategic Economic Development Plan which aims to foster a strong and resilient county economy.
Pamela Shupp Menet, the county’s director of economic development, unveiled the plan to council nearly a year after the county hired an economic and community development consulting firm to manage the creation of the initiative for about $195,000. .
Shupp Menet said Tuesday that their expertise, along with community feedback collected across the county, helped design an inclusive and innovative plan.
The mission of the plan is to guide economic development efforts for the next five years.
Shupp Menet said the initiative aims to address four critical issues identified by the company:
• There is an uneven dynamic between job seekers and the local labor market: for every job created by industry growth, there are seven vacancies created by exits from the labor force. This represents an estimated turnover of 4% between 2018 and 2028.
• Land availability is a challenge: only 22% of land in the county accommodates commercial and residential activities, which significantly limits development opportunities.
• Housing stock is not keeping up with demand: only 2.6% of all units in Berks were built in 2010 or later, while 25% of all units were built in 1939 or earlier.
• Diversity and inclusion are key to population growth: Without these increases, Berks would have experienced a population reduction of approximately 3% over the past decade.
Shupp Menet outlined six plan goals to address these issues:
1. Encourage industrial and commercial development.
• Invest in site development where market and environmental conditions require a public role.
• Support the growth of industries that provide employment opportunities.
• Support the growth of the agricultural industry.
2. Support small businesses and encourage entrepreneurship to enable the creation of high growth businesses, main street amenities and wealth creation for residents.
• Increase government and school district spending on local businesses.
• Support small business and enterprise strategic planning efforts that are underway.
• Improve access to financial resources and market access for high street and high growth potential businesses.
• Supporting small businesses striving to expand their operations to increase efficiency and achieve exponential growth.
3. Support land development that increases the tax base in Berks.
• Improve the permitting process and better preserve the county’s natural resources through the expansion of the Berks County Conservation District Processing Authority.
• Identify growth corridors and specific communities for development opportunities.
• Review existing and potential transit and ensure it aligns with business and industry growth.
• Support the expansion of passenger rail.
• Support the growth and positioning of Reading Regional Airport as a key asset for economic development.
4. Invest in county residents by supporting structures to connect residents to employment opportunities so they can fully contribute to and benefit from Berks’ economy.
• Retain and add workers to Berks, prioritizing retention and support of the unemployed and underemployed.
• Invest in and support workforce readiness and development initiatives.
• Support companies in recruiting talent for immediate hiring, retention and reducing the number of departures from the workforce.
• Matching disconnected youth and Latino talent with job opportunities and pathways to prosperity.
5. Respond to county needs for accessible and feasible new and redeveloped housing.
• Assess and correct mismatch between housing stock and housing demand, including age, price, type and location.
• Encourage the redevelopment of obsolete commercial and industrial properties.
6. Invest in and enhance community assets that provide access to a variety of artistic, cultural, green space and recreational activities for residents.
• Fund improvements to new and existing public spaces located throughout the county, prioritizing green spaces and inclusive gathering spaces.
• Support Main Street and Commercial District revitalization programs.
• Continue to invest in trail networks.
• Develop a cohesive and collaborative county message and shared marketing resources.
Shupp Menet told commissioners the plan represents a prosperous path for the county.
“This plan was designed to be a fluid plan that we could be very nimble with, and as our economy evolves, we would be able to refocus strategies and action steps to ensure we were on the right track. path to success,” she said. said.
She pointed out that to turn this vision into reality, the county will need to work with many partners, but added that the county will be the main supporter on many counts. And, she pointed out, the county is already taking action on a number of those initiatives.
Shupp Menet said the $18 million from the U.S. federal bailout is funding the county given to 49 businesses, nonprofits and municipalities for community improvement projects directly aligned with the plan’s mission. She also highlighted the county’s $450,000 contribution to support local tourism organization efforts and a $100,000 commitment to the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.
“We weren’t sitting around waiting for the planning process to unfold without making strategic decisions,” she said. “We believe the time is right to bring all of our partners together so that we can embrace this vision.”
The commissioners said they were satisfied with the economic plan and eager to make it happen.
Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt acknowledged that the county has created plans like this before, but none have really focused on the key elements that are so important to county leaders. And, he said, unlike those previous plans, this one has the financial backing to make a difference.
“We are going to put money behind these initiatives,” he said.
Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said the plan marked the first time in the county’s history that its leaders had a comprehensive economic strategy.
“If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind,” he said. “This idea that as long as we maintain the status quo everything will be fine is a failed strategy. It’s a way of making an excuse that we don’t need to do anything.
Leinbach said he believes this strategy outlines the goals Berks must achieve in order to ensure a bright and prosperous economic future for generations to come.
“I want to see our children and grandchildren be in a community that has jobs, that has a future, that has opportunities to grow and that’s what the IMAGINE Berks plan is all about,” he said.