WILKES-BARRE — Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership in Wilkes-Barre, said Northeastern Pennsylvania’s industrial parks were originally born out of crisis — a regional economy left shattered after the downfall of the anthracite mining industry.
“Hard coal built the region, but by World War I, it was already on the wane,” Newman said. “In the 27 years between Armistice Day and VJ Day, Northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite industry would hemorrhage more than 100,000 jobs.”
After World War II, Newman said as anthracite continued its collapse and unemployment skyrocketed, local business and civic leaders set out to put people back to work.
“To do so, they had to overcome enormous obstacles, not least of which was this — how do you recruit new industries to communities where the economy was too weak to attract private investors to develop industrial sites and buildings” Newman said.
Starting in the region’s largest cities — Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton, and Pottsville — Newman said that question was answered through the creation of non-profit industrial development corporations. He said local groups organized, raising funds within their communities to acquire land, prepare sites, and build industrial buildings to accommodate new businesses.
“And, they embraced another new concept — the industrial park,” Newman said.
Traditionally, Newman said industrial jobs were woven into the fabric of communities. In fact, most of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s older towns grew up around the mines, collieries, factories, and railroad yards that were their reason for being. People would walk from their homes to their workplaces, and colliery whistles told everyone when the workday had ended.
By the 1950’s, however, Newman said that was changing.
“Industrial parks were a twentieth century creation, prompted by a desire to remove noxious manufacturing uses from residential neighborhoods,” Newman said. “As households shifted to cars for their transportation needs, it became that much simpler to separate factories from the neighborhoods where workers lived.”
In the anthracite region, Newman said outlying tracts of land with access to rail and regional highways provided the opportunity to create planned industrial districts that could attract new employers. The region’s first wave of business parks — such as Crestwood in Mountain Top, Valmont in West Hazleton, and Keystone in Dunmore — all date to this period, Newman noted. Their early development was driven by recruitment of the “smokestack” industries that typified that era.
Ultimately, Newman said state government created the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority, known as PIDA, to assist local economic development efforts. Other communities turned to the new tools and techniques to benefit their residents, and from Berwick to the Poconos, industrial parks were built throughout the broader region.
Newman said as NEPA’s logistical advantages became apparent, distribution centers became an increasingly significant part of local economic development activities, while other parks were developed as “corporate centers” to meet office users’ needs.
“The region’s industrial development efforts stand out for their early focus on the difficult work of reclaiming abandoned mine lands and ‘brownfield’ sites in order to return them to productive use,” Newman said. “Today, the region’s business park roster includes many such properties, which are once again generating jobs and tax revenue for their communities.
“Today, Northeastern Pennsylvania’s business parks help to power the region’s economy.”
For example, Newman said:
• More than 12,700 people are employed in the five business parks originally developed by the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber and its affiliates.
• Those five parks — Crestwood Industrial Park, Hanover Industrial Estates, Hanover Crossing, Corporate Center at East Mountain, and Highland Park — comprise approximately 2,600 acres.
• Those five park generate more than $8.7 million each year in county, municipal and school district tax revenues.
Newer efforts have focused on ensuring the vitality of a different type of business district — the region’s downtowns — as hubs for office and “Eds-and-Meds” employment; and on fostering the growth of entrepreneurship and the “knowledge economy,” Newman said.
And, Newman said, after decades of work by non-profit development groups, the region’s economy ultimately improved to the point where private developers now routinely invest in the construction of new industrial properties and parks, playing a leading role in the next generation of business facilities.
“Northeastern Pennsylvania’s business parks have become a fundamental element of the region’s economic landscape,” Newman said. “They are the places where the majority of the region’s job creation projects will continue to occur, and, as we address the latest challenges for regional economic development, such as skills development, family-sustaining job creation, and transportation equity, the parks will continue to be at the center of the discussion.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.