Editor’s note: Recently, Lehigh Valley Business asked several Berks County officials and business leaders to answer this question: “What is critical for Berks County to thrive as a business hub, and how does it happen?” The following is one of the responses – by Alan Shuman, broker of record of the Shuman Development Group, Reading.
Let me start by noting that this is a great question, and one in which I have acquired a great deal of both research and practical experience. In general, a community must have certain characteristics to establish and maintain itself as a successful business hub:
Easy, convenient land and air access.
A variety of local lenders.
An abundant selection of workers.
Reading and Berks County have all of these in spades. Look even closer, and note the truly unique and beneficial features, such as:
Attractive historical architecture.
Beautiful recreational areas.
Well-maintained and adequate airport.
World-class attractions such as a variety of entertainment venues, restaurants and museums.
I have been doing commercial real estate development for more than 20 years and have evaluated other medium-sized cities from Buffalo, N.Y., to Mobile, Ala. None of them could measure up to the potential of Reading.
So, with all this going for it, why does Reading always seem to be lagging behind its neighboring cities and is singled out by the state and federal governments as needing special help (meaning hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars) to support the school systems and many development projects?
The answer is clear and printed in black-and-white nearly every day: Reading has had no defined, progressive or effective leadership in decades.
The city of Reading is not a large metropolis, but it is also not a small town, so when it is hampered with a small-town mentality, no significant progress can be made.
Sure, to be fair, Reading has had mayors and council persons who have tried to make a difference to move the city forward, but no real cohesive leadership.
I am talking about the kind of forward-thinking, unified leadership that I saw as a combat officer in the U.S. Army — when a leader would listen to all viewpoints, evaluate the situation then formulate an operation that brought everyone together to accomplish the goal. It was a life-and-death matter, so we all did our best to make the best decisions possible.
Last but not least, I was held accountable for my decisions not only by my superiors, but also by my peers, subordinates and (most importantly) by myself.
Likewise, to make Berks County a thriving business hub, we simply need to make its one and only city a thriving business hub. To accomplish that, we must have leadership that has a clear goal of being business friendly (because small-business owners are the financial backbone of this country).
Lastly, City Hall must move toward that goal every single day.
The constant bickering between the mayor, city council and the supporting authorities must stop. They must cease just saying they want to be business friendly and actually start making decisions that attract, support and grow businesses.
Think about it — businesses are both the main employers of the local population and contributors to the tax base. Without healthy businesses, you have an unemployed population, which leads to down-trodden neighborhoods and shifts the major tax burden to that impoverished residential population.
It makes no sense to gouge small businesses with fee upon tax upon fee – only to drive them to a more business-friendly locale. Nobody wins in that scenario.
That is the big picture; now let’s bring it down to city level. As one of the few stable, consistent inner city developers in the region, I have a proven track record.
Despite the political climate, I have been successfully investing in the city of Reading for more than 20 years. I have not only successfully rehabilitated large-scale commercial sites but entire neighborhoods.
And by successfully, I mean that they are economically viable when completed. They require no subsidies to continue to operate and contribute to the local tax base, rather than being taken off the tax rolls.
I have not only improved the physical presence of city properties but also brought businesses into the city. These include not just local, reputable mom-and-pop operations, but also government offices and national commercial chains (e.g. Subway, Quiznos and Save-A-Lot, to name just a few).
As such, I get calls from the community development and mayors’ offices from most of the surrounding cities asking me what they could do to get me to start doing downtown development for them. They are prepared to roll out the red carpet and, most importantly, offer their moral and political support to get the job done.
That is the definition of being business friendly.
I’m committed to Reading. I am disheartened to admit that in my 20-plus years of doing business in Reading, I have never received a call from City Hall asking how it could help.
This is the perfect example of the difference between saying you are business friendly and actually being business friendly.
I have come across dozens of city businesses that could and would expand with the right support. Those business expansions could easily create about 500 new jobs per year. Over the next 10 years, that amounts to 5,000 new downtown jobs and what could be called a key component to a thriving business hub.
Instead, sadly, there has been a steady exodus of Reading businesses (both large and small), a result mainly from City Hall’s decidedly business-unfriendly climate.
It all starts and ends with:
A few how-can-we-work-together phone calls.
Working out solutions with opposing viewpoints.
Not playing favorites.
Listening to all parties.
Setting concrete goals to bring businesses (therefore, jobs and a greater tax base) to the city of Reading.
I believe that this is possible and hope that the current leaders can show us they are truly leaders.