The IMAGINE Berks planning process is well underway, and we are excited to provide an update on the progress we have achieved thus far. This strategic process, which is driven in large part by community engagement, will culminate in a 5-year Economic Development Action Plan that encourages sustainable land development, suggests improvements to local regulatory and tax policy and strategies, and achieves competitive market positioning to sustain and grow existing businesses and attract new businesses.
Thanks to the valuable contributions made by community members, combined with the knowledge of our project team, we have established a strong baseline understanding of the community. We have identified key areas of strength and opportunities for growth in Berks County. This process emphasizes both qualitative and quantitative data that will support a well informed, strategic, and impactful path forward.
Community Engagement & Input
Since we began, we have hosted meetings with the Advisory Committee, conducted a county-wide listening tour, participated in several planning meetings with the County team and partners, and conducted interviews. To date, we have conducted one-on-one interviews with more than 35 stakeholders representing diverse backgrounds to better understand lived experience in Berks County. Participants have included industry leaders, small businesses owners, elected officials, and residents. We’ve also received feedback from more than 40 community members through our online survey. And we want more participation! Please consider completing this brief 5-question survey if you have not already!
Top 8 Findings
Over the course of recent weeks, the planning team has executed analysis to identify key findings about Berks County, its assets, opportunities, and challenges. Here are our top eight findings to date:
Diversity: Diversity is recognized as both a strength and opportunity of the County. It is a lens through which all economic development initiatives should be viewed through, given significant changes in the population’s demographics. In particular the Hispanic population has increased significantly, growing at more than ten times the overall population growth rate. Without the gain in Hispanic population, Berks County would have lost 15,220 residents in the last decade. Overall, counts from the 2020 Census estimate that Berks County has a total population of 428,849 residents. Trends captured in Census American Community Survey data from 2010 to 2019 indicate that the county’s population is growing older. During the last decade, growth for older adults (65 years and older) far outpaced that for working age (20 to 64 years) and youth (under 20 years). By engaging our community’s diverse set of stakeholders throughout all facets of the planning process, we will foster inclusive growth and build a stronger community.
Industry Growth: Berks County and the surrounding region has experienced significant growth in the Business Services cluster and continues to be a competitive performer in the Financial Services cluster. Manufacturing and Healthcare in particular are two industries of focus. Key manufacturing sectors in Berks include food, primary metal, electrical equipment, and transportation equipment. For Manufacturing and Healthcare industries, we must support and facilitate investment to help align labor needs and technology integration with future demographic trends of labor supply. From a strategy perspective, we will need to target specific industry clusters to attract and retain new and existing businesses, ensuring Berks County is known as a reliable place for businesses growth and resident career trajectory.
Live-Work Dynamics: Berks County is an employer magnet. Workers commute into Berks from throughout the region. Top home locations for Berks County jobs include Lancaster (8,560 workers), Montgomery (8,260), Schuylkill (6,900), Lehigh (5,810), and Chester (5,050) counties. All told, 15 counties contribute 1,000 or more workers to Berks' workforce. This demonstrates the interconnectedness of the region’s economy. However, Berks County also exports labor; more workers leave Berks County for their jobs than commute in. Of the 202,530 resident workers living in Berks County, more than 4 in 10, totaling 88,060, commute out of the county for work. 68,840 workers living outside the county commute in for work. 19,220 fewer workers commute into Berks than commute out. More than half of all outbound commuters leave Berks county to work in jobs that pay above $40,000.
Quality of Place: Quality of life and quality of place are increasingly noted by Berks residents as the biggest asset the county contains. The natural vistas and “small town feel” are highlighted as benefits by many and are noted as building blocks to attract further interest in the area. That being said, employment within main street entities, such as restaurants, retail, and arts & entertainment establishments is concentrated to large employers with 500 or more workers, mainly chains. Business births in these main street industries lag births across other industry segments. Vibrant, walkable main street corridors with local businesses can add to quality of place. Promoting these corridors, while also leveraging our green space amenities, will be key to our attraction and retention efforts. Overall, the community needs a cohesive marketing plan that amplifies our story, strengths, and successes. Building a unified brand identity will foster pride amongst residents and businesses and generate excitement about Berks within the county and beyond.
Infrastructure: Land use and infrastructure improvements continue to be high priority topics for Berks County and its residents and businesses. Development costs and a lack of business density are noted as challenges in driving growth and investment. Furthermore, lack of transportation options is creating a challenge for residents and job seekers with limited walk-to-work or ride-to-work opportunities.12,917 households (representing 8.4% of households) do not own a vehicle. 75% of households without a vehicle are renters. Future strategies will need to target areas for development, making use of existing infrastructure capacity and making new investments to increase accessibility and mobility. Additionally, newer modes of infrastructure, such as Broadband access have been highlighted as areas needing immediate investment to ensure long term economic stability for the current and future workforce. Investments in new types of infrastructure are of particular importance as diversified modes of employment, such as remote work, become the norm.
Talent: The story to be told about Berks’ Talent Pipeline is mixed. For every one job created by industry growth, seven job vacancies are created by labor force exits. Labor force exits represent 4% of projected turnover between 2018 and 2028. That being said, the demand for local labor is clear. The two largest employing sectors in Berks are manufacturing and health care (17% and 15%, respectively) based on LCIA projections. These two sectors are heavily weighted towards occupations for direct service or production activity. Identifying activities that connect businesses with jobseekers and aligning educational programs to match the skills needs of industry represent both opportunities and challenges. Identifying and addressing the profile of remote workers and their specific needs will also require attention.
Housing: Berks County has an aging housing stock, the second oldest in the state of Pennsylvania. Only 2.6% of all housing units in Berks County were built 2010 or later and 25% of all housing units were built in 1939 or earlier. Additionally, housing stock in the City of Reading is concentrated in single family attached and multifamily units. Only 200 units of housing have been added in Reading since 2010. Housing stock in the rest of the County is primarily single family construction. Investments in housing stock that reflects housing choice and supports the changing dynamics of a growing County population are needed and are important if the county is to succeed in attracting and retaining necessary talent.
Municipal Collaboration: Participation and collaboration across municipalities will be key to the success of our county-wide economic development plan. Anecdotally, we know that active participation, collaboration, and commitment to smart growth and economic development have been challenges in the past. We intend to address that challenge head on through this planning process.
In January we will be hosting a series of Build Sessions — strategy sessions designed to build solutions that take advantage of opportunities on the horizon or that mitigate challenges we’re currently facing in our community. If you’re interested in keeping up to date on these dynamic planning meetings, please make sure you’re signed up to receive updates.