FCADC president presents economic development update
COVID-19 has affected Franklin County in many ways, but it did not relocate it.
The county is a microcosm of the rest of the nation in terms of the impact of the coronavirus, "but we will come out better than a lot of places," Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., said during a virtual presentation hosted by the Greencastle-Antrim Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by F&M Trust Thursday morning.
"We're still within a 12-hour drive of 50% of the North American population," Ross said.
Projects delayed by COVID-19 are resuming, proposed development could bring about 5,000 jobs to the area within the next 12 to 15 months and the housing market is skyrocketing. The county unemployment rate of 3.4% pre-COVID stands at 11.4% — the highest Ross has seen in his 34 years at the helm of FCADC — but he thinks it will be much closer to 3.4% 12 months from now.
"The last six months are unlike anything any of us have dealt with," Ross told the 40-some people watching online or listening by phone.
FCADC's No. 1 priority is retention and expansion of local businesses, followed by selective attraction of new business and assistance to start-ups, Ross said at the beginning of his update, an annual G-A Chamber of Commerce event.
*** Growing again ***
The year started "with great promise," then the coronavirus hit.
"COVID has done a lot of things negatively to us, but it can't relocate us," Ross said.
The county will be as diversified post-COVID as it was pre-COVID, Ross said, listing defense, manufacturing, health care, professional services, transportation and logistics, and agriculture.
Things slowed down during the earlier months of the pandemic, but "projects have started to resurface," Ross said, including construction of the $67 million Franklin County Judicial Center in Chambersburg; commercial development in the area of Walker Road, Chambersburg; the location of an auto body facility in the old Chambersburg Beverage Building; the relocation of F&M Trust's headquarters in Chambersburg; and Leg Up Farm, a pediatric therapy center near Fayetteville, for which ground was broken Thursday afternoon.
In terms of site location, "there's not a better location than Antrim Township and the greater Greencastle area," Ross said.
Projects getting back on track in Antrim Township include construction of the A. Duie Pyle integrated logistics center; construction of Matrix Development spec logistics facilities behind Corelle Brands; and the expansion of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs. APX moved some of its production from its Mercersburg plant to the former El Dorado Stone building on U.S. 11 north of Greencastle and moved work from its York facility to Mercersburg.
Upcoming projects include two in Antrim Township that recently received variances from the township zoning hearing board — U.S. Ice and Cold Storage and a not-yet-to-be identified fulfillment center tenant for a warehouse proposed by NorthPoint Development. The fulfillment center is expected to create 2,000 jobs, and at 1.9 million square feet that will be "to our knowledge, the largest building in Franklin County."
Also in Antrim Township are the expansion of JLG and an ATAPCO project, which is expected to be announced soon.
Elsewhere in the area, Matrix has a committed tenant for a 1.85-million-square-foot project near its building now occupied by Lowe's in Southampton Township; there is a $100 million investment in Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in Montgomery Township; FCADC is planning a spec building in Washington Township; and an Amazon facility near the Hagerstown Regional Airport will mean 2,000 jobs.
Ross acknowledged the challenges still faced within the county, especially for the hospitality sector — restaurants, hotels, events centers and retail.
For example, FCADC will not be able to hold its annual industry appreciation dinner at Green Grove Gardens near Shady Grove because of COVID-19 restrictions.
He also said health care is impacted as procedures like elective surgeries are delayed.
FCADC received a waiver and was able to be open throughout the pandemic and addressed the question "How can we help businesses that have been affected?"
State and federal programs were rolled out quickly, creating confusion, so FCADC created an "all things COVID" webpage to provide information.
When the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority rolled out its Working Capital Access program, FCADC received 100 inquiries in four days and submitted 18 applications, with 13 approved for funding totaling $853,000.
A small business recovery grant program was created with $2.9 million from CARES funding allocated to Franklin County. As of Thursday morning, FCADC had received 80 applications totaling $2.7 million.
*** Housing ***
Penn National sold more homes in the first six months of 2020 than all of 2019, Ross said.
COVID-19 has fueled even greater interest in local housing as more people are working from home and want to get out of high-density urban areas like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
This area is well-positioned for people who still have to go to a city office once or twice a week.
"They can get twice the house for half the money," Ross said. "And take advantage of our high quality of life."
*** Infrastructure ***
"We don't know the rules and protocol post-COVID," Ross said, but he does know there needs to be a federal infrastructure bill.
Not only does Interstate 81 need to be addressed, but broadband and the electric grid are key issues, too, Ross said.
"We have lots of potential, but we've got to have the infrastructure to support it," Ross said, leading into his "controversy for the day" — the Antrim Township Municipal Authority and the Greencastle Area Franklin County Water Authority.
The merger of the two water systems has been discussed, but has been "contentious for years," Ross said, adding it "came close a couple of years ago."
Merging the systems and providing water to more parts of the G-A area is "a critical factor in in residential, industrial and commercial growth," Ross said.
Ross cited Andy Papoutsis, owner of APX on U.S. 11 as saying, "I need water, I don't care who provides it."
The Greencastle and Antrim Township communities came together to create a premier school district, and Ross said, "I think the same can happen with utility services instead of having competing utilities side by side."