Sunday, November 9, 2014

Berks County has a lot of great stuff, but nothing like its neighbors

by Steve Reinbrecht
[I reported this in August.]

Premise: We want people to come to Berks County.

We want the best workers to work in our businesses.

We want people to visit and spend money and go home and tell friends how much fun they had in Greater Reading.

We want smart young people to come and study here and maybe stay and start businesses and families.

Reality: We have to work hard to attract people here.

At this point, we don’t have the jobs to lure many employees. In fact, more than 40 percent of Berks workers commute to jobs outside the county, according to 2011 statistics. 

We don’t have nationally ranked colleges.

We don’t have blockbuster attractions like neighboring counties do, such as the Valley Forge Casino next door in Montgomery County or an amusement park like Dorney Park, with Steel Force, the ninth longest steel roller coaster in the world. Longwood Gardens, in Chester County, had 1.1 million visits in 2013. Valley Forge National Historical Park gets 1.3 million visitors a year.

But maybe Berks doesn’t have to be a regional powerhouse in education or tourism or even employment.

“Be careful what you wish for,” said Berks County Commissioner Mark Scott. Many people like the quiet life here, prefer cornfields to development, and are happy to drive an hour to ride a roller coaster, he said.

“People who live here don’t feel deprived of a Dorney Park.”

In a comment on a recent report by Franklin and Marshall College about Berks’ economy, Brian Kelly, head of ReDesignReading, a community development corporation, suggested that Berks look inward and concentrate on the people who live here.

“The key to economic revitalization will be a diverse strategy that leverages our strengths and harnesses the resiliency, diversity, and entrepreneurialism of our workforce and population.”

Consider what we do have, Berks Commissioner Christian Leinbach told me.

“I'm pretty impressed with what we have to offer here in Berks County, and yes, it fits well with my vision of Berks County. “

The list of the top three attractions in Berks, provided by Lisa Haggerty, of the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau, surprised me: Maple Grove Raceway, the Kutztown Folk Festival, and Koziar’s Christmas Village. The Kutztown festival gets about 130,000 visitors a year, said director Steve Sharadin. Attendance figures weren’t available for the raceway or holiday display.

The weeklong Berks Jazzfest every spring is a big deal in Greater Reading. In its 25th year, the fest attracts 40,000 a year from all over the world. Studies show the fest has as much as a $10 million effect on local economy, organizer John Ernesto said. 

But it pales in comparison to the annual Musikfest, 35 miles away in Bethlehem, with 10 days of live music, including hundreds of free performances. Estimated attendance in 2013: 993,000 people. This year, Keith Urban, Cheryl Crow, Weezer and paleo-rockers Moody Blues and Steely Dan were booked.

Marketing could improve. Some of the best attractions Berks has aren’t well known. Even some tourism professionals in nearby counties haven’t heard of the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, the exceptional arts center in Reading, nor even the iconic Pagoda.

Asked about Berks, Nina Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, said she thinks about outlet shopping and the former Joe’s Restaurant, known for its mushrooms, and said she has heard about the hotel under construction in downtown Reading.

She was only “vaguely” aware of the GoggleWorks arts center in Reading.

“Tourism wise, that’s not on the map,” she said.

Asked about Berks attractions, George Wacker, at “Discover Lehigh Valley,” that county’s tourism bureau, said, “Now you’re putting me on the spot. … I know the Reading Phillies put on a great family event.” 

He hadn’t heard of the GoggleWorks but did know of the Pagoda.

It’s even hard for prospective visitors to get to Berks. Haggerty said a lack of passenger air and rail service discourages conventions. 

The latest Census figures estimate that about 26,000 people commute in and about 50,000 commute out to work. The job recovery since the recession lags in Berks, compared to Chester, Lehigh and Lebanon Counties and the state overall. A big chunk of those who drive out probably go south and east to pharmaceutical and information-technology jobs, such as at Vanguard Group, in Malvern, said Ed McCann, former director of Berks’ Workforce Investment Board. Those who commute in, mostly from homes north and west of Berks, come for manufacturing and health-care jobs. Many workers at the new Berks Park 78 distribution complex on Interstate 78 are from Schuylkill County, he said. 

Berks has wonderful attractions, but few are on the level of those in neighboring counties. In 2012, tourists spent nearly $800 million in Berks, compared to more than $1.8 billion in the Lehigh Valley and Lancaster County, and about $1.2 billion in Montgomery County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. 

Berks was once a shopping destination. Reading’s downtown outlets, now all closed, received buses full of shoppers from all over the region. Much of the retail moved to the suburbs, but my three daughters greatly prefer shopping at the King of Prussia Mall or at Park City Mall in Lancaster than at anywhere around Reading because of the number and quality of the stores. Berks’s major mall, the Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing, has about 110 stores. The King of Prussia Mall, in Montgomery County, has more than 400 stores, many not found in Berks, such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor, and an Apple store. Park City Mall, near Lancaster, has about 175, also including an Apple store.

The Vanity Fair outlets, in West Reading, still bring buses to our area, despite the larger outlet centers to the east and west of Berks, Haggerty said. “People still associate Reading with great outlet shopping and plan visits to VF when they are here,” she said.

Cabela’s, a giant hunting and camping store just off Route 78 in northern Berks, has anchored a giant retail complex and must be a regional destination, but the company would not provide visitor numbers.

West Reading, with its blocks of restaurants and boutique shopping, is a destination for people from outside of Berks, said Dean Rohrbach, manager of the borough’s Elm Street development program, run by the state. For example, about half of the diners at Papillon Brasserie, a French restaurant at 615 Penn St., come from outside the county, he said. Chatting with people at Fightin Phils baseball games in Reading, he’s discovered many of them come from away as well.

Hawk Mountain and the World War II Museum and air show also bring ample visitors, Haggerty said. The museum had 33,000 visits in 2013, representing 46 states and 16 foreign countries, according to its office.

The Santander arena and nearby Santander performing arts center in Reading had about 285,000 attendees at hockey games, concerts and other events in 2013, according to 
Joanie Berney, SMG marketing manager. 

Billboard advertisement is an example of the efforts of Berks’ biggest employer, Reading Health System, to drum up business. But only about 10 percent of the patients came from outside of Berks County in 2013, and about 1 percent came from further than the surrounding counties, said spokeswoman Ann Valuch. 

Pennsylvania attracts students. About 36,000 students come to the state for higher education while about 20,000 Pennsylvania students leave the state for school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, proving the state is an educational draw.

What about Berks? County-level data aren’t available, but its two small private schools, Alvernia University and Albright College, each on the outskirts of Reading, successfully draw students from outside the region. At Albright, 65 percent of students come from beyond Berks and the six surrounding counties, including about 70 foreign students this year. About 70 percent of Alvernia’s students come from outside of Berks.

At Kutztown and Penn State Berks universities, each connected with the state system, nearly 90 percent are from Pennsylvania, though Penn State Berks Chancellor Keith Hillkirk noted his school also has about 70 foreign students, and the number grows each year.

However, no Berks College is a top-ranked school such as Bethlehem’s Lehigh University or Lancaster’s Franklin and Marshall. Lehigh University draws about 75 percent of its undergraduates from out of the state. F&M, a couple of blocks from downtown Lancaster, draws 62 percent of its freshmen from other states and another 13 percent of them from other countries.

Lehigh and FM also have easy access to their cities’ downtowns, providing more of the urban experience that attracts young people today. Many students seek colleges in exciting urban environments with lots of recreation and public transportation.

But many still prefer the bucolic settings that Berks’ schools provide, said Hillkirk, who also leads the Berks Higher Education Council. From Berks they can take field trips to nearby cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore for theaters and museums and city fun. He knows some students have returned to the Berks campus from Penn State’s main campus because they like the smaller campus at in Berks County 

“I think we have the best of both worlds,” he said.

What are Berks leaders doing to attract more commuters, students and shoppers?

Many agencies pursue economic development from many angles. If McCann’s theory is correct – that many people in eastern Berks commute outside the county to IT and pharmaceutical jobs – perhaps employers in those industries could be lured to Berks with the prospect of so many skilled workers, McCann said.

Rohrbach is studying surveys and reports to decide how to focus marketing to attract more people to West Reading. He wants to get the message to higher-educated people who might like the borough’s arts and distinctive dining.

The Berks tourism bureau is launching its own marketing study and expects results after February.

As for higher education, there is tremendous competition among colleges to attract students. Schools need to figure out a niche and market it clearly and precisely to perspective families, Hillkirk said.

McCann, of the workforce board, notes that maybe it’s more important to have residents than commuters because people tend to spend their money in the place where they live.

But people are voting against Berks County with their feet. More than 3,000 people moved out of Berks than moved in from 2010 to 2012, according to the Census.

It’s a chicken and egg problem -- people want to go to where there are jobs, good schools and fun things to do. But businesses and fun things to do don’t generally spring up where no one goes.

Although it’s important to try to attract them, it’s unlikely that more tourists, commuters and college students will solve many of Berks problems. Maybe we should focus on providing services jobs and goods for the people already here rather than attempt to be a regional beacon in a part of the county with so many strengths.

Perhaps economic development could be focused more on day-to-day assistance to small businesses here rather than seeking giant employers. And perhaps promoting little-known gems such as the GoggleWorks and walking trails here will enrich the lives of residents as well as visitors.

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