PLAINS TWP. — Data released Thursday for Lackawanna and Luzerne counties show the region’s economy is improving on many fronts, but the challenge now is to develop strategies to maintain those strides.
That was the message delivered by speakers Thursday morning during the eighth annual Indicators Report Forum held at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development publishes the report and uses task forces to analyze census and other data to craft its findings. For the first time since the recession hit more than five years ago, speakers talked about how to improve on trends that have taken a turn upward.
“I think we should be bullish on the region, and I think we’re on the cusp of greatness,” Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, said.
She said population gains have continued and the past decade marks the first one since the 1950s in which the decade ended with a higher population than that with which it started. While increased demands on social services and law enforcement have accompanied it, growth should be viewed as a strength, not a weakness.
Growth means new ideas, more diversity and the ability to lure more companies here, she said.
“If we truly want a vibrant, innovative, 24-hour economy, we have so many assets in place already that we can get there,” Ooms said.
But strategies need to be developed to handle that continued growth, and that means more cooperation from different parts of the region and a need to recognize what’s good for Scranton is good for Hazleton and what’s good for Wilkes-Barre is good for Carbondale.
“It’s clear that we have to come together as a region,” said state Sen. John Yudichak, who was on hand to discuss a regional gang initiative launched by himself, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and others. “We can no longer afford to go it alone.”
That idea of regionalism has been stressed since the forum was created eight years ago, but Ooms said of all the improvements noted by the annual report, the attempts at more regionalism have not made the strides she had hoped.
“We need to start thinking bigger, start erasing the political and geographical boundaries that have held us back,” Ooms said.
In addition to economic data, task force leaders also discussed the status of health care, transportation, energy and public safety.
When it comes to the impact of the Marcellus Shale and the economic benefits of the natural gas drilling boom seen in some portions of the region, Ooms said there’s no doubt that statistics show counties where drilling is taking place have seen lower unemployment rates
Marcellus Shale impact
While drilling is not taking place in either Lackawanna or Luzerne counties, she and others said there are ways to benefit from the nearby activities.
Patrick Leahy, president of Wilkes University and chairman of the institute, said the report is a good guide for multiple industries and offers insight into the region for those familiar and unfamiliar with the two counties.
Leahy said the report “gives us a chance to measure our progress over time.” He said that while it’s good to see how the region is improving, one of the benefits of the annual report is that it also shows “trends moving in the wrong direction so we can intervene early.”
Transportation and housing needs are among those trends, and both are factors that will affect this region as growth continues.
As more people move in, and as the population continues to age and the need for more senior housing increases, housing will be an issue that will need to be addressed soon.
Interstate 81 concerns
Tom Lawson, a transportation task force chairman and co founder of the local engineering firm Borton-Lawson, said I-81 is already experiencing congestion and infrastructure concerns.
If the region continues to grow and truck traffic continues to increase, state and federal governments need to start addressing strategies to alleviate the potential for even more congestion.
He noted that a proposal to widen a 30-mile stretch of I-81 between the two counties has a price tag now at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, and that cost is likely to increase if the work is not done.
Lawson said that “the amount of freight traffic over the next 20 years is expected to explode. If we don’t get more funding it’s just going to be more congestion on our highways.”