In January, the IMAGINE Berks project team worked with Fourth Economy Consulting and Connect the Dots to facilitate virtual Build Sessions. Through these interactive working sessions, more than 75 community representatives worked together in small groups to begin building the strategies that will shape Berks County’s Economic Development Plan. There were six Build Sessions covering several of the plan’s focus areas, including:
Entrepreneurship & Small Business
Talent & Economic Mobility
Infrastructure & Land Use
The planning process has continued to emphasize the importance of celebrating and supporting our county’s diversity so that all Berks residents may prosper. It has also reinforced the need for municipal collaboration across the region. Below are a few of the team’s key takeaways from the Build Sessions.
Entrepreneurship & Small Business: Berks County has a strong support network for entrepreneurs and small business owners. That being said, the county has a lower business birth rate (7.8%) than many of its neighboring counties, as well as the state (8.5%) and the US (10.2%). Through more coordinated efforts and expanded reach, the county can fill current gaps in resources and access, with a particular focus on minority and women owned businesses.
Industry Growth: With average annual GDP growth of 1.4% from 2001 to 2019, Berks County has had greater GDP growth relative to Lancaster, Montgomery, and Lehigh Counties during this period. Its resilient economy is due in large part to the Manufacturing and Healthcare industries. For continued sustainability, it is important that we promote opportunities for local businesses - across large and small industry sectors. Additionally, industry growth will require matching labor with employer needs by developing our local talent and recruiting from outside of the County. Housing, placemaking, and talent development efforts, described in more detail below, will be critical to this effort.
Talent & Economic Mobility: For every one job created by industry growth in Berks County, seven job vacancies are created by labor force exits. In the next decade, there are 35,000 anticipated retirees (accelerating), 45,000 high school graduates (decreasing), and 8,000 associate’s and bachelor’s graduates (steady). Growing talent and economic mobility will include expanding skills training for in-demand jobs paying above a livable-wage, promoting dynamic careers in the trades, and broadening the talent pool.
Housing: Only 2.6% of all units in Berks County were built 2010 or later, while 25% of all units were built in 1939 or earlier. Population growth and increase in housing demand, particularly in the Reading area, have not been met with the same growth in housing units. Additionally, there is a mismatch between types of housing and household formation patterns. The County will work to incentivize development that is in keeping with Smart Growth principles, which concentrates development around specific hubs and preserves green space, while also addressing demand for affordable housing.
Infrastructure & Land Use: Berks County is a central component of our highly connected region at large. For example, there are a great number of people commuting both in and out of the County, with 69,800 people entering for work and 88,500 residents commuting out. It is important that we target areas for development, making use of existing infrastructure capacity and prioritizing new infrastructure as needed. Through targeted investment, we will increase accessibility to work, school, and amenities, while also growing commerce and overall quality of life. As part of this planning process, the County is exploring how it can provide resources for necessary zoning updates across municipalities.
Placemaking: We would describe Berks County as “the keystone of the keystone.” The County is made up of unique regions, characteristics, and assets - most importantly, our community members - which help us serve as a central component to our regional economy. Embracing our diversity, the very characteristic that makes defining our identity difficult, is integral to building a strong pride of place. By emphasizing accessibility and inclusion in our placemaking initiatives, we will foster the strong community support needed to champion economic development. The strategic plan will address how we can brand Berks to promote our diversity and attract interest and investment to our County. With cohesive marketing, we can expand the number of visitors, new residents, and businesses within our County.
Community engagement has been a priority throughout the entire planning process, ensuring the plan itself will be representative of those who live, work, and recreate in Berks County. By offering multiple channels of communications, the County has engaged with a diverse group of community members who have helped identify the solutions that will address areas of opportunity and challenge in Berks.
The recommendations generated during the Build Sessions will directly shape the forthcoming strategic plan. After a detailed review of all ideas, the Project Team is now refining and developing a portfolio of strategies. The team will consider the degree of impact, level of difficulty to execute, and resources required in order to support successful implementation.
County-wide support will remain critical as we transition from planning to implementation. Through continued collaboration, Berks County’s Strategic Economic Plan will serve as a catalyst for measurable, inclusive growth throughout our community.
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