Boom time along the Gateway District

The area along Lancaster Highway outside of the Town of Richburg, popularly termed the “Gateway district” has seen great growth in the past few years, with the coming of Giti Tire and Carolina Poly, the expansion of SunFiber, the groundbreaking for a new Holiday Inn Express and the announcement of a 800-plus housing development, to name only a few. Local businessmen such as Country Omelet owner Scott Hill have announced expansion plans and there’s a new QT convenience store going up in the same area. These are only some of the businesses, services and industries that are locating or expanding or growing. But expansion, growth or creation, it all spells prosperity, a boom time along the Gateway district. Why is it happening?

Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker Dean said she thinks what’s happening is people are starting to see Chester County in a very different light.

“They’re noticing our location off of Interstate 77, the fact that we still have prime opportunity with land and at affordable prices – not cheap, but affordable, and that makes a difference.

“Our industrial project activity has not slowed down, but that’s now been coupled with people who are looking at this area for residential housing. And according to what we understand, any time you get a QT convenience store, it’s because they’ve done the market research (and they think this is a good place to build a store). Others are sure to follow,” she said.

Dean pointed out a 246-acre parcel of land behind the QT property is coming up for a third and final reading to change the zoning to general commercial.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities and people are seeing that,” she said. “Before, we were telling everybody of the opportunity, but I don’t think they believed there was one here, that people thought we were too far south or too far north. Now everybody is looking in this area and I think all the hard work that has been done by Chester County Council, the Chester Development Association and the county departments that are involved, is paying off.”

At the apex of this boom time, Dean offers a cautionary word.

“The most important thing now is to make sure we grow in a very sustained, orderly way, so we don’t step back in 10 years and say ‘Wow, we missed this. We should have done a better job there,” she said.

The way you do that is keep up the momentum from this boom time, but at the same time, “not overindulging in the success of right now. Because sometimes you have to step back and look at what you’ve done to say if it is working. We learned with Giti Tire and the success that’s followed with the industries that came after, that housing is in a shortage; there’s a pent-up demand here, both from people wanting first time homes and those people wanting to get out of their starter homes and advance to the next level, and those people who want to enjoy the apartment-type of lifestyle. We’ve not had that. And the reason there are no starter homes is because when people get in one, they realize there’s nowhere upward for them to move.

“So now we’re seeing we have had some opportunities presented that may open up the door for that. That’s very exciting, but it took a Giti Tire and a Carolina Poly and a Roseburg Forest Products to ask where are our people going to live? It’s made people start thinking about Chester in that way, too,” she said.

It’s all about seeing that everything happens in its time, Dean said.

“While we welcome everyone that wants to come and be a part of this prosperity with us, we want to make sure of two things: one that it’s the right time, and two, that you are going to be a partner, because the days of ‘We’re doing you a favor by coming here’ are over. It needs to be a concerted effort so that we can grow in that orderly way.

“We are very excited about the opportunities that have been presented. We want to make sure that we’re a partner at the table,” Dean said.

The area may not so much be in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding about what industry comes to Chester County (or rejecting what industry doesn’t come to Chester) but the county does play a large role in defining more the type of industry or business that Chester County would like to see.

“And that is driven more by answering the question of what type of workforce we have. I can tell everyone I’d rather have aviation and aeronautics industries, but if I don’t have people who can work on those engines and build those widgets, parts and pieces, I’m whistling in the wind. What we have to do sometimes is say here’s what our diverse industries in the county are going to look like and how can we provide the training to produce that kind of worker?” she said.

“We have to know who we are and where we are at this moment. We may have to wait for the workforce to catch up, or we may have to be better at defining what it is they’re trying to attract, versus what they’re training for, and take the time to make sure the two things marry.

“It’s an exciting time – a lot of people are feeling that and a lot of people are reacting with disbelief. I’m sure some are feeling we haven’t gone in the direction they would have wanted us to. But we’re here,” Dean said.

If she could have one wish over the holidays, Dean said it would be for every person in Chester County to take advantage of the opportunities that are being presented to them, and take that to improve their circumstances or situation and quality of life.

“Every opportunity – the jobs available at Giti Tire, the jobs at Carolina Poly and the jobs that will be coming with Roseburg – isn’t that why we did this? It was to improve the quality of life. And if it presents housing and service opportunities, that’s exciting,” she said.

By Brian Garner, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter