“Outstanding” and “extraordinary” were the words used by economic development officials to describe progress in Greater Reading in 2017.
New businesses are locating to Berks County and many established ones are expanding, said Pamela Shupp, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership, at the organization’s annual meeting Thursday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel.
About 7.2 million square feet of industrial space over 650 acres are projected to be built the next two years.
Shupp praised the efforts of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance and its three affiliates, which include GREP, the Greater Berks Development Fund and the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry, for raising the region’s visibility.
“People are finding Greater Reading,” said Shupp, who is also executive vice president of the GRCA. “It was an outstanding year for economic development in Greater Reading.”
Some of the successes include $11 million in state loans the GBDF helped secure for businesses, including five in agriculture, an important part of the region’s economy.
New businesses, which include Prime Wellness of Pennsylvania, a medical marijuana grower and processer in South Heidelberg Township, and Sheds Unlimited in Morgantown, added more than 1,300 jobs, and other businesses retained 100 jobs.
Shupp said 17 companies plan to expand the next 12-18 months, including Dieffenbach’s in Bethel Township, Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. in Ontelaunee Township and American Crane and Equipment Corp. of Douglassville. Eight of the companies said they don’t have enough room to grow at their existing location.
PLAN FOR GROWTH
“It was an extraordinary year,” said Randy Peers, president and CEO of the GRCA.
Peers said the revitalization of Reading is a priority for the alliance and city officials, which have developed a comprehensive plan and committed $1.5 million over the next five years to various programs.
The focus will be on creating mixed-used commercial and residential buildings, he said.
Outreach to small and Latino businesses also will be a focus this year. To that end, the alliance recently formed a Latino advisory committee.
ATTRACTING, RETAINING WORKERS
Despite progress, workforce challenges remain in the region, with 78 percent of manufacturers identifying finding workers as an issue.
Keynote speaker Janet Ady, president and CEO of Ady Advantage of Wisconsin, a consulting firm that advises economic development organizations and manufacturers, said a region’s economic development efforts go hand-in-hand with business’ efforts to attract and retain workers.
The attraction, development and retention of talent is a complex, national problem, but there are effective strategies communities can use, Ady said.
Among some of the best practices she has studied: create a sense of belonging in a community and improve the quality of a place.
“Make it a more welcoming or cool place to live,” Ady said.
First impressions matter to prospective workers when they are considering relocating in a city, she said.
Ady said it’s worth understanding why people have different perceptions of two communities that are close to each other, but people want to live and work in one of them.
“Why is this one so cool and this isn’t?” she said.
Economic development organizations, tourism boards and workforce development programs share a common concern for quality of place, Ady said, but they also need to remove barriers to relocation. Her research has shown that housing, transportation and drugs are among the top barriers.
Ady noted other strategies businesses are using to find workers include hiring ex-offenders and paying off student loan debt as a way to attract millennials.