Community, business leaders weigh in on economic development

Part of the process of updating the Chester County strategic plan for economic development is to get input from various sectors of the public. A recent meeting at the Gateway Conference Center with business and community leaders did just that.
Those present included representatives from the City of Chester and Towns of Great Falls and Richburg and Chester County Council, as well as a representative from the Catawba Council of Governments.
The meeting was facilitated by Crystal Morphis, an economic development consultant who is helping the county with the strategic plan.
Another meeting took place at the end of October, and meetings will be scheduled in Chester and Great Falls.
Morphis said citizens have a chance to have input into the strategic plan either through meetings like this, or participating in the economic development surveys that were sent out to business partners and community leaders.
According to Morphis, in addition to the surveys and meetings, the strategic plan will examine “products” – sites, buildings, industrial parks and business parks that could be offered to potential industries – in the three counties of Chester, Fairfield and York, that are part of the I-77 Alliance.
The result of the research and input will be “a comprehensive economic development strategic plan that will guide the (economic development) program for the next five years,” said Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker.
Morphis told attendees at the meeting Chester County economic development has seen tremendous successes, and “anytime a success occurs, we have an opportunity to really catapult off of it, and you don’t want to miss those opportunities to launch yourself forward and leapfrog your competition.”
Morphis then conducted a SWOT Analysis. SWOT Breaks down the analysis into Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats.
Morphis explained strengths as assets that can attract a business to the community, or keep a business in the community or the assets that draw the people to the community.
“Economic development is very concerned with how you develop a workforce with attractive, talented and skilled people to your community,” she said, “and retaining your best and brightest young people to combat “brain drain” in the community,” she said.
“These assets are not only assets that keep and retain business, but assets that keep and attract people too, because people are your number one resource. Today, companies make location decisions primarily based on workforce. They may become interested in your community because of the site, or your location, but when it comes down to just a few choices (of communities to locate in) the tipping point is usually ‘do I have a pipeline of skilled talent, and what are you doing to ensure that?” Morphis pointed out.
Some of the strengths identified:
-I-77 corridor and available open land
-Chester County school system
-Good communication from county to municipality level
-Gateway Conference Center
-The rail and highway system in the county
The fact that Chester County is just at the beginning of their success, said Karlisa Parker, is a strength.
“It’s almost like we’re new. We can make a decision of who we’re going to be because before we really weren’t defined, and now we can do that. We can define who we are and we don;t have to rely on anybody else to define us. I think that’s exciting for Chester County as a whole. Every partner brings something different, and that’s okay, but we are together on this. We probably don’t do a good enough job of telling the media so they can tell others, for example, how many people have come and looked at this facility at the Gateway, or how many people have come and toured the industrial sites,” she said.
“When I came into economic development, people would ask ‘what’s your story?’ Well, we didn’t have one, so we have to define the story, refine it, learn to tell it, teach others to tell it and tell it well and tell it often.”
Morphis then turned the discussion to weaknesses, or as she likes to term them, challenges the county faces in the economic development task.
“Think of weakness in terms of obstacles to business recruitment or business retention, reasons why people may not want to move or stay in Chester County,” she explained.
Some weaknesses or challenges:
-Housing options in the county
-Drugs and crime
-Infrastructure: access and capacity across the county
-Negative people who are resistant to change
-Communication between the county and municipalities
The next item for discussion was opportunities.
“I like opportunities,” Morphis said, “because my definition of economic development is the community’s eternal optimist. When the rest of your community thinks the community is going to heck in a handbasket, your economic developer is going to stand up and sing the praises of it,” she said.
“Chester County has tremendous opportunity right at your doorstep – it is there for you to take advantage of. Think about those opportunities you need to capture. If you don’t, you’re going to make a misstep and you’re going to kick yourself in ten years,” she said.
Some opportunities:
-Room for business competition – retail and service companies
-Historic downtowns with buildings that are not being used, but could be
-Ability to cooperate on a regional level, where something done elsewhere in the region still benefits here
-Room in the county at several locations for industrial growth
-The opportunities that existing industries and the ones moving into the county will open up for other businesses
The discussion then turned to threats to the economic health and well-being of the community.
-Infrastructure – the infrastructure across the county does not have the capacity or ability to serve certain types of industry or business
-Quality and the amount of rental housing
-The county’s high taxation rate
-The possibility of unplanned growth
Elaborating on the issue of unplanned growth, Karlisa Parker said, “I think it  is very important for the county and the cities and the towns to come together on zoning and land use, to protect one another and so we don;t fall short and let our guard down. It’s time for Chester to say ‘we’ve got 1,700 new jobs coming in’. At the economic development office, I can’t tell you how many hotels we’re talking to, how many commercial ventures we’re talking to, how many people who wouldn’t look at us before are all of a sudden are taking a second look. Now we need to plan for that growth and have it in place, because unplanned growth is a threat,” Parker said.
Morphis advised, “communities have to decided where they’re going to be in the level of growth restrictions – as you grow and develop as a community and start taking ownership of your vision and what you want to be like, you start setting those restrictions that help drive the growth, and make it a place where you want to be. Chester County is in a really good position now to set that specific growth direction for your community.”

By Brian Garner, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter