By Kathy Henderson, Director of Economic Development, CCEDC
I read an article in Bloomberg recently by Claire Ballentine about the “Rust Belt” and ways that the local communities are turning around abandoned manufacturing plants. An excerpt from her article sounds a lot like what some of our towns in Carbon County have become.
Ms. Ballentine writes: “In the center of Fort Wayne, Indiana, sits an abandoned General Electric Co. complex built more than a century ago, a space that once employed about 40 percent of the city’s workforce but now serves as a constant reminder that the downtown isn’t what it used to be.”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Change out the wording from General Electric and insert the Palmerton Zinc Company, the coal mines, the garment factories etc. and you see the similarities between us.
The GE project in Fort Wayne is being transformed into a mixed-use development including apartments, restaurants, offices and retail space by utilizing the existing 18 buildings that GE occupied during the town’s manufacturing heyday. The project will be financed by $45 million of local government bonds.
Renovations that transform old manufacturing centers into apartments and shopping plazas are common in larger cities. Closer to home, we can see this happening right now in Allentown along the waterfront and in the downtown. With a population of about 121,000, Allentown has used tax-exempt revenue bonds in part to finance a retail, dining and commercial office center, including a 10,000-square-foot arena. The development has since attracted several big-name businesses to downtown Allentown, including Lehigh Valley Health Network and Bank of America Corp.
We can take some cues from the Lehigh Valley. Even though they have larger metropolitan areas than we do, we can scale their ideas to fit our needs. One of our challenges is to create projects and developments that still protect our natural environment. After all, tourism is still one of our top attractions and we need to preserve that with agriculture being another industry that is at the top of our list.
Carbon County’s towns all have sites that fit the same description as the GE site in Fort Wayne. If we can re-develop them into usable spaces to include different types of uses, then we need to look at what other towns have done. There is no need to re-invent the wheel.
The CCEDC is working hard with our local communities to bring about positive change including introducing the Local Economic Redevelopment Tax Assistance Program or (LERTA) and the Main Street Program that is starting in Lehighton. It’s time we stop beating ourselves up about what used to be and look towards what we can be. We have a lot of opportunities in Carbon County, we need to get out of our own way and take the next steps to make them happen.