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Revitalizing Pa: What needs to happen

Invest in older towns, not sprawl

Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, Dec. 8, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

When he was campaigning for the governorship, Ed Rendell touted a two-pronged plan to revitalize Pennsylvania's 54 mid-sized and small cities and 961 boroughs, pledging to:

  • Create an "Economic Development Cabinet," comprising key state agencies and chaired by the governor, to ensure state policies and programs affecting economic development would be coordinated to rehabilitate blighted urban areas.
  • Put together a major borrowing package for economic development that would be shepherded through the General Assembly, providing at least $1 billion for small and mid-sized cities and boroughs.

So far, neither has happened. The economic development cabinet proposal morphed into a "Housing Cabinet" chaired by a director of housing and economic development. The borrowing package is tied up in the legislature, caught behind the impasse over school funding.

But even if Rendell's initiatives are implemented, they'll fall short of fulfilling his ambitious goals. As the new Brookings Institution report shows, our towns won't make a comeback until the state ceases to subsidize sprawling development.

For decades, Pennsylvania's been in thrall to The Big Myth. The Big Myth supposes older cities and boroughs can be revitalized while new development on virgin land is simultaneously encouraged in suburban and rural areas. That's hard in fast-growing states. In Pennsylvania, which ranks 48th of the 50 states in growth, it is virtually impossible.

It's not that Pennsylvania doesn't spend on economic development. On a per capita basis, only four states spend more. But Pennsylvania doesn't target its spending. Instead of investing in its towns, the state has splurged to create new roads, infrastructure, and corporate parks in formerly rural areas. Instead of creating new jobs and wealth, this spending simply transfers jobs and residents from established communities to sprawling new ones. Two of Pennsylvania's greatest assets - its historic, walkable towns and its scenic countryside - are thereby diminished.

Gov. Rendell seems to believe The Big Myth. His administration recently supported legislation to remove a deed restriction on 22 acres of farmland in Warren County to allow construction of a new Wal-Mart, a project that would undermine the nearby small city of Warren. Contrast this with Vermont, where Wal-Mart was persuaded to locate in existing buildings in the rural towns of Rutland and Bennington.

Properly nurtured, our traditional towns can be the Commonwealth's gold standard for sustainable development. Because they place homes, stores and offices in a compact area, towns are far more energy efficient and environmentally benign than sprawling development. They preserve farmland and open space. They promote walking, the most practical way to stem the rising tide of obesity. They foster upward mobility by bringing together people of all incomes. And all across the country, resurgent cities and towns are attracting the young, highly educated workers Pennsylvania desperately needs.

The revival of Pennsylvania's older communities, where more than half the state's residents still live, can't be just one more state program. It needs to be a crusade.   

Specifically, Gov. Rendell must:

  • Make clear by Executive Order that all the resources of state government will be focused on "smart growth" - revitalizing Pennsylvania's traditional communities.   No state funds will be allocated to the development of virgin land.
  • Create a Smart Growth Task Force that includes the secretaries of Transportation, Environmental Protection, Community and Economic Development, and other key agencies. Heading the Task Force should be a Director of Smart Growth reporting directly to the governor.
  • Preach the need for sustainable development to the 80,000 state employees directly under his jurisdiction. Enlist their help revamping state procedures to encourage investment in traditional towns and prevent further development in the countryside.
  • Reach out to Republican leaders in the General Assembly who are committed to reviving established towns. For example, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Tamaqua's Rep. David Argall, successfully sponsored a bill to locate all state offices in traditional downtowns.   Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, of Lebanon, sponsored the state's landmark legislation to reuse brownfields, which are nearly all located in traditional communities.
  • Promote legislation that would require counties to define areas for sustainable development, and areas for rural conservation, and require all municipal zoning to be consistent with the county plan.

Gov. Rendell says the revitalization of Pennsylvania's towns is the revitalization of Pennsylvania. He must clearly demonstrate he means it.



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