Written by Dan Miller
A consultant’s report lists the town’s assets, and suggests how the borough can “alter the trajectory’’ of its future economic success.
A rapidly expanding college campus. Beautiful waterfront views. Unique architecture and a distinctive history. A location close enough to all that is fun and exciting, yet far enough away to be tranquil.
Sound like any place you know?
Middletown has natural and man-made assets that most other towns would die to possess. Despite that, the town is performing far below its potential. The good news is that the town and its people have within their power the ability to change that.
These are the findings of an economic development strategic plan that was scheduled to be presented to Middletown Borough Council for the first time on Tuesday, Sept. 2 during a council meeting.
The plan is the product of Commonwealth Economics, a consulting firm working for Dewberry, the engineering company hired by the borough to lead in the revitalization of Middletown’s downtown.
The 43-page report leaves no stone unturned in assessing the borough according to a broad range of quality-of-life factors, such as education, housing, income, crime, employment, physical and cultural amenities, and demographics.
The consultants looked at historical trends to see how these quality-of-life indicators have changed over time. For example, the borough’s population has shrunk over the past generation, but the town today has a relatively high proportion of young people living here.
The report also shows how the borough stacks up to three neighboring communities – Elizabethtown, Hummelstown and Lititz – that were chosen for comparison based on input provided to the consultants by focus group participants.
While the report was done for a company that the borough has hired to make the town look good, the end product pulls no punches. The goal of the report, as stated in the executive summary, is “to alter the trajectory of economic performance in Middletown.”
“Recent decades have been associated with significant disinvestment, stagnant population and property values, declining homeownership and unacceptably high commercial vacancy,” the report says – all of which is supported in detail by data-based charts and graphs highlighted throughout the publication.
The report also makes repeated references to the significant obstacles that the borough faces – some largely beyond the town’s control, such as broader state, national and global economic trends, but others seemingly of our own making.
For instance, the consultants describe as “shockingly small” the town’s present level of interaction with Penn State Harrisburg – despite the report’s conclusion that the burgeoning campus holds the key to the town’s future success.
The report also describes a dysfunctional relationship between the town’s government and its residents and business community. From the outside perspective of the consultants, the picture is of a borough government that is aloof, unresponsive and uncommunicative.
Four key recommendations are offered in the report, based on the data trend analysis and from what the consultants gleaned from three focus group sessions that separately gathered input from Penn State Harrisburg students and staff, business owners, and borough residents.
The report at a glance:
Penn State Harrisburg:
The growing campus “arguably represents the single greatest opportunity for rejuvenation in the borough,” yet the town’s current level of interaction with Penn State Harrisburg is “shockingly small.”
Students say the downtown has little to offer and that they do not feel safe off campus.
“Middletown can no longer afford to effectively ignore the presence of this rapidly expanding campus, which among other things includes growing out-of-state populations … if the notion is that a rising tide lifts all boats, Penn State Harrisburg should be considered the most likely source of that rising tide.”
Middletown has less people now than in the 1960s. The town’s population declined 3.4 percent from 1990 to 2012 – in contrast to the state growing by 7 percent and the nation by nearly 24 percent during the same period. Elizabethtown and Hummelstown also grew faster during this same period. Middletown’s population is expected to expand only gradually going forward, but that would be an improvement over previous decades.
Poverty in Middletown is “elevated” and has “risen sharply” over the past 10-plus years. The current poverty level in Middletown exceeds 15 percent, more than double that of Lititz and nearly three times the level of Hummelstown.
Middletown is more diverse than comparable communities – however, this largely reflects the relative lack of racial and ethnic diversity in those other communities. For example, nearly 10 percent of Middletown residents are African-American, while more than 97 percent of Hummelstown residents are white.
Middletown has a relatively high proportion of chlldren – nearly 20 percent of borough residents are 14 years of age or younger, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
Middletown has a relatively small population of those who have some college education or an advanced degree. However, the report says this trend has been moving in the opposite direction over the past 10-plus years, with the share of residents with an advanced degree rising and the share of those lacking a high school degree declining.
The report says there is “evidence of progress” within Middletown Area School District, with the proportion of students scoring advanced in reading and math on the rise while the share scoring below basic in math and reading is on the decline.
The combination of property and violent crime is less in Middletown than in Pennsylvania as a whole. However, it is higher than in Elizabethtown and much higher than in Hummelstown and Lititz.
Between 2000 and 2012, job losses have been significant in agriculture, public administration, transportation/distribution and manufacturing. Jobs and economic activity have increased in arts and entertainment, and in education and in health services.
Middletown has a “disproportionate” concentration of employment in distribution, construction, arts and entertainment, retail trade and finance.
Middletown’s median household income is just over $44,000 – below that of Hummelstown ($56,900), Lititz ($51,200), and Elizabethtown ($50,400). More than one in four Middletown households report annual income of less than $25,000 – with 12.6 percent of borough households reporting income above $100,000, suggesting a widening gap between rich and poor in the town.
As in many other comparable communities, Middletown’s tax base has been flat since 2008 as a result of the economic downturn and the sluggish recovery. However, among the other communities used as a benchmark – Elizabethtown, Hummelstown and Lititz – only Middletown has seen an actual decline in the assessed value of taxable real property.
Housing and property values:
Property values in Middletown are lower than in the comparable communities. Roughly 71 percent of properties in Middletown were valued at $150,000 or less in 2012, compared to 35 percent in Elizabethtown, 37 percent in Hummelstown and 29 percent in Lititz.
Middletown’s home ownership rate – 52 percent – is lower compared to the other communities, and its renter-occupied rate is higher.
The report's recommendations:
A downtown apartment building for Penn State Harrisburg students:
The borough should identify at least one significant downtown site for location of a professionally-managed apartment building that would target Penn State students. The consultants noted a number of under-utilized parcels in the downtown, some of which take the form of lightly-used surface parking.
According to the report, Penn State Harrisburg “arguably represents the single greatest opportunity for rejuvenation in the borough.”
“The clustering of Penn State students, staff and faculty would also help to support existing enterprises, including eateries and the Elks Theatre. If the notion is that a rising tide lifts all boats, Penn State Harrisburg should be considered the most likely source of that rising tide.”
Tax incentives for historic properties:
The consultants recommend that “significant property tax breaks” be provided to owners of historic Victorian and other properties that are re-converted for owner-occupied properties. The consultants envision that in most cases these properties will be converted from rental units to condominium units.
The consultant say that tax breaks would help reverse the trend of the past several decades of some of the borough’s most historic and beautiful structures being sub-divided into rental units – contributing to a townwide homeownership rate of just 52 percent.
The recommendation suggests a tax break plan where owners who convert their property back to being owner-occupied would pay just 20 percent of their borough property tax bill in the first year, 40 percent in the second, 60 percent in the third, and 80 percent in the fourth year.
After five years, the owner would pay the full amount and the plan would lead to increased property tax revenue to the borough overall, the consultants say.
Market Middletown to travelers:
The borough needs a greater and more robust online presence to market Middletown and to take advantage of the town’s close proximity to Hershey and its attractions.
The goal would be to capture more of the nearly 60 percent of visitors to the region who come to Hersheypark and the other tourist attractions in Hershey. The effort would target key markets in the greater Harrisburg area as well as in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The consultants suggest development of a new hotel in the borough is premature and that financing for such a venture likely would not be available.
Establish a Chamber of Commerce, or at least a Visitors’ Bureau:
The consultants say business leaders have no “voice” and that communication with borough government is “challenging.” An organization devoted to business in the borough would identify key issues of concern in the business community and serve to advance the interests of business as well as the broader community.
The chamber would also be responsible for implementing the online marketing initiative that the consultants recommended.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 September 2014 13:18
Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 September 2012 14:07