Franklin County’s economy is booming, but I-81 and the labor force need attention
“Trust us,” the Franklin County Area Development Corporation told a few hundred local business and government leaders this week, 2021 went better than 2020.
Now coming out on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, FCADC President Mike Ross gave his annual state of the economy presentation on Thursday at Green Grove Gardens near Greencastle. Overall, things are going well with wages up, unemployment low and development growing, but the local economic development expert said some critical areas need attention.
Here are some highlights:
- Franklin County’s economy is booming.
Franklin County is among the 15 counties that together are driving population growth in Pennsylvania, Ross said. That is directly connected to economic development in the region.
It’s no secret that manufacturing and transportation/warehousing are key industries. Manufacturers that operate in Franklin County helped contribute $1.1 billion to the United States’ gross domestic product in 2020, the most of any economic sector.
It’s also the manufacturers and transportation/warehouse industry that are driving the growth in commercial construction, which can be seen up and down Interstate 81 and elsewhere. However, they are not the biggest parts of the county’s economy.
Retail and hospitality cover about 24% of the economic pie, followed by 17% for healthcare and education. Manufacturing makes up 14% of the economy, followed by 11% for transportation and warehousing. Local government, business/professional services, agribusiness and construction make up the rest.
“We want to make sure we are diversifying the economy so we are never depending on one sector,” Ross said.
Wages grew 5.4% in 2021. The median hourly wage advertised was $20/hour.
- I-81 is vital to the region’s success, but it needs improvement.
I-81’s importance to economic development in the county has been at the center of many of Ross’s presentations over the years.
Companies choose to operate here because the interstate makes it easy to import and export products and to access workers and customers. The county is within a day’s drive of more than half of the population in North America. Nearly 51,000 vehicles drive through the county on the interstate every day, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Proximity to the interstate will only gain in importance as fast delivery becomes more of a priority for customers.
However, Ross said I-81 needs to be improved if it is to handle what the future holds. He implored lawmakers to make the interstate a target for some of the $11.3 billion in federal funding the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide for Pennsylvania roads. Another $1.6 billion is expected for bridge replacements and repairs.
“I’m tired of the response that Pennsylvania is a big state, we only have so much money…and we have to prioritize,” Ross said.
- Early childhood education is critical for the future…
One of FCADC’s priorities this year is early learning, or programs that work to ensure the county’s toddlers and preschoolers are getting the tools they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
The organization will continue working with First Start Partnerships for Children and Families to start as many kids as possible on the right path. Formerly known as Franklin County Head Start, First Start Partnerships provides free educational programs for children through age 4 and other services for families.
One initiative is a pilot program in Greencastle, which is currently in the discussion stage.
- …and relates to the labor shortage.
“If we’re gonna address workforce development long-term, we need to have young people prepared to go to kindergarten, candidly,” Ross said.
Even though Franklin County is among the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state – the population has grown 4.2% since 2010 – companies here are struggling to fill jobs just as much as anywhere else.
The number of jobs in the county was up 2.6% in 2021 from the year before. At the same time, the percentage of the population in the labor force dropped to 63.4% from 66%. On top of that, the unemployment rate as of November was 4.4%, a rate so low that it is “effectively zero,” Ross said.
Currently, there are two job openings for every unemployed person; in 2010, the ratio was six openings to five unemployed people.
Still, projects expected to come up in the near future could bring an additional 6,500 jobs to the county.
While the pandemic highlighted the labor shortage, Ross said it had been a growing problem.
“We just simply don’t have enough people,” he said.
However, there are programs available to make sure people living here have the skills for the jobs that are out there. Triangle Tech is a key example; the welding training school opened a Chambersburg branch several years ago, but now is expanding to other skilled trades.
- These are some projects in the works in Franklin County:
Expansion of Martin’s Potato Rolls: President Tony Martin, a member of the third generation of Martins to work at the family company, said a partnership with the restaurant Shake Shack took this Chambersburg-based company to the international stage, which now sits at 40 countries. To keep up with that and other demand, Martin’s is adding a new bakery line that will include 260,000 square feet in production capacity and a 16,000-square-foot cold dock. The project at the company’s headquarters off Pa. 316 is ahead of schedule.
Herbruck’s Poultry Farm/Blue Springs Egg Farm: This long-in-the-works facility will bring more than 2 million egg-laying chickens to 335 acres in the Mercersburg area. Once fully operational, it is expected to add more than $100 million in economic development to the county and hundreds of jobs.
F&M Trust’s new headquarters: This Chambersburg-bred bank expects to move into a renovated, 67,000-square-foot building on Nitterhouse Drive by the end of the year. The bank has outgrown its headquarters on Chambersburg’s Memorial Square but will continue to lease the property.
Ross also described development opportunities at I-81 exit 10 and the planned exit 12, both in Guilford Township (“Marion is coming on the map for warehouse and distribution,” he said.), on Parkwood Drive in Greene Township, at the United Business Park in Southampton Township and at Chambersburg Mall in Greene Township.
Amber South can be reached at email@example.com.