Mountains Majesty: Driving economic development in the Poconos

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In the early 1890s, a vaccine researcher named Richard Slee, afflicted with cholera, traveled to the Swiftwater Inn in the Poconos to recuperate. According to the Monroe County Historical Association, there he met and married the innkeeper’s daughter.

So Slee stayed in Swiftwater. In 1897, he founded the Pocono Biological Laboratories to produce the improved smallpox vaccine pioneered in France by the Pasteur Institute. Within a year, Slee was providing all the vaccines used in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Today Sanofi Pasteur is a global maker of vaccines. Its U.S. headquarters remains in Swiftwater, where it employs 3,000 people.

Sanofi Pasteur
Sanofi Pasteur

Another thing that endures: The lure of the mountains to growing businesses.

“Many of our best industries are here because their owners first experienced the area as vacationers,” says Chuck Leonard, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation (PMEDC).

“Natural beauty and a pro-business climate aren’t mutually exclusive,” adds Mary Beth Wood, executive director of the Wayne Economic Development Corporation. “Our rural character is part of our charm, but also deceptive.”

Lehigh Gorge in the Poconos
Lehigh Gorge in the Poconos

Sure, the Pocono region is best known for its ski resorts, golf courses, thousands of acres of gameland, unspoiled natural beauty and historic sites; those attractions draw about 26.5 million visitors a year. But the region is also home to thousands of businesses representing an array of sectors, and the four Pocono counties — Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne — have embarked on a collaborative effort to further diversify the local economy beyond tourism and hospitality.

Natural beauty and a pro-business climate aren’t mutually exclusive. Mary Beth Wood, Wayne Economic Development Corporation

And in an exciting spotlight for the Poconos, statewide economic development professionals will descend on the region October 31- November 2 for the 2016 Fall Conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Economic Development Corporation (PEDA).

“Our biggest asset is our location,” explains Wood. “The Pocono Mountains are next door to the northeast metro areas. The Sterling Business & Technology Park [in Wayne County] is less than two hours drive to Manhattan and is situated midway along the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor. We can reach the northeast markets generally within a half-day drive.”

Downtown Jim Thorpe
Downtown Jim Thorpe

Leonard agrees: “Our highways give us proximity to major markets in a beautiful setting, providing a high quality of life for our businesses and citizens.”

Officials also cite the low cost of site acquisition and doing business, abundant workforce training resources and a low tax burden as other factors that appeal to companies and site selectors.

And they proudly point to local success stories. Vigon International, for example, is a growing manufacturer of fragrances and flavorings in Stroudsburg. PMEDC assisted the company by financing an expansion and providing assistance in the construction of natural gas and water lines.

Sutphen East Corporation, a fifth-generation family-owned business that manufactures fire apparatuses, moved to Pennsylvania earlier this year, becoming the anchor tenant at the Sterling Business & Technology Park. According to Wood, the company is expected to create 60 jobs within three years and make a private investment of approximately $2.4 million.

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“Sutphen East Corp. chose the Pocono region based on many factors,” explains General Manager Darryl Rhyne. “Some of the main considerations were location to Interstate 84 and proximity to the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area; the incredible work force that exists in [northeastern PA]; and the commitment from state, county and local officials to ensure a high quality partnership with our business, focused on growth and long term success.”

Kathy Henderson, director of economic development at the Carbon Chamber & Economic Development, lauds the recruitment of Sharps Compliance Corporation to a 40,000-square foot medical-waste-treatment facility as the company expands operations in the Northeast.

Kahr Arms moved its operations from New York State to Pike County last year.

These companies join well-established Poconos businesses such as the venerable children’s magazine Highlights in Honesdale and Tobyhanna Army Depot, a presence in the area since 1912, which with almost 4,000 workers is the region’s largest employer.

While most of the country has seen declines in manufacturing since 2000, we’ve actually benefited from growing manufacturing employment. Chuck Leonard, PMEDC

Business recruiters in the Poconos are especially focused on attracting manufacturing. Twenty-three small manufacturers have come to Monroe County since 2000 and inquiries continue to come in steadily.

“While most of the country has seen declines in manufacturing since 2000, we’ve actually benefited from growing manufacturing employment,” says Leonard.

Wayne and Carbon counties also target light manufacturing and technology companies in sectors like IT and digital media.

Still, there are challenges. For example, Carbon County’s topography makes the development of industrial parks to attract larger companies difficult.

Glen Onoko Falls, Poconos
Glen Onoko Falls, Poconos

“The biggest challenge to recruiting new businesses is our limited contiguous parcels of land that are zoned for industrial use,” explains Henderson. “The strategy is to market existing buildings that were used for industry in the past and are now vacant.”

In Wayne County, “our sweet spot is companies seeking greenfield sites that accommodate mid-size buildings,” says Wood. The mountainous terrain also makes it difficult to continue to grow the distribution and logistics industry. Leonard says Monroe County can accommodate no more than four additional large facilities.

And, “like many rural communities, infrastructure is one of our most difficult challenges,” he adds. “Much of our agency’s work lately has been focused on the construction of the necessary infrastructure to attract investment…We have become the sponsors of major highway projects, natural gas lines, sewage systems and water lines.”

Workforce competition is also an issue in Monroe County where proximity to northern New Jersey and New York is drawing more than 20,000 higher-skilled residents to commute in search of higher wages. Managing rapid population growth is a double-edged sword requiring significant investments in schools and other community assets.

We’ve benefited from numerous tourism projects that are creating new opportunities for job growth and investment. Chuck Leonard, PMEDC

For the best leverage, the Pocono counties have teamed up on marketing efforts and work closely with the tourism and hospitality industries.

“We’ve benefited from numerous tourism projects that are creating new opportunities for job growth and investment,” says Leonard. “The successes that new resorts have had in our marketplace have generated numerous inquiries from other potential investors.”

All of that will be on display when an expected 150 attendees convene for the PEDA conference at the new Kalahari Resort and Convention Center — itself the creator of 1,000 jobs since opening last year.

“The Pocono Mountains region well deserves its reputation as a world-class tourism destination,” says Joshua Skopp, PEDA’s executive director. “But it prides itself, too, on a business climate that encourages entrepreneurism, innovation and collaboration.”

This series was created in partnership with the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association (PEDA).

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Region: Northeast

Community, Development, Entrepreneurship, Features, Made in PA, Manufacturing, PA Products, Poconos