PLAINS TWP. — It won’t hurt to blow our horn.
In fact, it could benefit the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area to do so, Terri Ooms said Thursday as she released the ninth annual Indicators Forum.
The bi-county area has demonstrated incremental improvements and has existing strengths to build upon, said Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University that prepared this year’s report tracking the region’s progress in a variety of economic, social and educational categories.
“Finally, there are negative perceptions of our region, some having to do with the image and identity and, again, I think it’s the failure to … appreciate what we have in our own backyard,” she told a group of several hundred people Thursday morning at the Convention Center of the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs casino.
After paging through the 90-page report, she summarized the findings, pro and con.
“Our existing businesses have weathered the recession,” Ooms said.
Exports for the region totalled $1.35 billion in 2012, the second highest year in the period from 2005 to 2012.
“More people are moving here than leaving, leading to positive net migration,” she said.
Lackawanna County saw a net gain of 68 people and Luzerne County registered an increase of 551 people, according to Internal Revenue Services data for the 2009 -10 period.
Also on our side, she pointed out, is the number of institutions of higher education, including The Commonwealth Medical School in Scranton. And not to be overlooked is that manufacturing is thriving as the third-largest industry cluster.
The expansion of the natural gas industry in the Marcellus Shale formation in the state’s Northern Tier can be developed to benefit areas that are not in the play. The spot price of the natural gas here is lower than in New Jersey and New York.
The cost, abundance and accessibility should be used to to attract to the area industries dependent upon the fuel. An institute task force will soon release its report on the issue, said Bill Sordoni of Sordoni Construction and task force chairman.
But work has to be done in a number of areas. Among them:
• The fiscal health of local governments and school districts is a concern.
“Increasing taxation is a bit of a challenge for our region because the taxes have been rising at a pace faster than income levels have been rising,” Ooms said. “And ultimately that becomes a challenge to the standard of living and the quality of life in our region.”
• The region still under performs in job growth compared to the state, and the unemployment rate, though dropping, remains high.
“We do have the poverty issue,” Ooms added.
• The rate of poverty in families with children under 18 in Luzerne County increased to 22.8 percent in 2012 from 22.2 percent in 2011. In Lackawanna County, the rate increased to 18.4 percent from 15.3 percent during the same period.
Getting back to the negative image of the region, Ooms said, “There is a perception that this is an extremely crime-ridden area and extremely dangerous to be in.”
Violent crime is below the national average, and the region is on par with other mid-size metro areas in the state.
“The negative perception and image and identity that is portrayed as a result of that and some other areas is also a significant factor in preventing us from moving ahead in an aggressive manner,” Ooms said.
The report looked at data up to 2012, however, and did not include the 24 homicide victims in Luzerne County last year. Of the total, there were 13 victims in Wilkes-Barre alone.
Significant headway has been made to combat crime, especially gang-related, under the Operation Gang Up a federal, state and local initiative begun by U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, and state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Twp.
Yudichak wanted to take it to the next level with the introduction of a countywide, after-school program for students, Yudichak said.
”I think the conversation has to be started,” Yudichak said.
He referred to the SHINE program in Carbon and Schuylkill counties as a successful example. The Luzerne County program would rely on existing resources that would be pooled together, he said.
Keynote speaker Henry J. Amoroso credited the institute for the report. Amoroso of HJA Strategies in Hackensack, New Jersey, and a faculty member of Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business, has been assisting Scranton as a financial consultant to exit its distressed-city status.
“The data trove is really remarkable,” Amoroso said.
But he explained that the data are objective and must be put in context in order to be useful. “How it’s implemented. How it’s used. How it’s applied is really the entire story,” he said.