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"Opportunities" keep knocking at Chester County's door

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By Brian Garner

Business and industry is alive and well in the county, says Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Dean. That new industry or business that comes in under the label “Opportunity” continues to knock at Chester County’s door.

Dean sat down with The N&R recently to reflect on how 2017 treated Chester County and what was ahead for 2018.

“In 2017, we had $231 million worth of investment, that was Roseburg Forest Products, Next Gen Alloys and ATI.”

“I always say we are so fortunate, because there are other communities that didn’t have that opportunity. Yes, we worked very hard to get them and very hard to keep them. A lot of energy goes into that.”

“This year, we’ve had 61 projects that I got to submit on. Of those 61 projects, there were 18 times that I had to decline the opportunity (and I hate that). It was because Chester County did not have a building that met the criteria needed for those clients,” said Dean.

Dean calls these expressions of interest about Chester County from business and industry “opportunities,” which gives you some idea of how she thinks of them.

There was a wide range of the types of “opportunity” that looked at Chester County as a place to locate, she added. Most of them still fell into the criteria of the type of company that Chester County wants to attract.

“We want manufacturing. We feel our workforce is geared towards that. Thirty-eight percent of our workforce is in manufacturing. We had recycling, we had OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), we had chemicals and plastics companies (which are already here and have been very successful for the county). But what was new to us that came knocking on the door was we had opportunities for data call centers. It was interesting that they would even look in our area and consider Chester County, even though I didn’t have a building for them. Most of them wanted an existing facility. But all of a sudden, we’re not too far south for this type of opportunity,” she said.

Dean said the way Chester County goes about courting these industries and the type of industries the county considers is in line with the 2015 Economic Development Strategic Plan.

“There were 11 goals; one of the top goals was ‘capture transformational opportunities.’

“Giti Tire was that.”

“It was the biggest investment, but it wasn’t the only one. We’ve done $1.2 billion of investment since 2011, created almost 3,000 jobs. But Giti was large enough that people would begin to ask ‘Why would they pick Chester County?’ I think it has given us opportunities, because other people come in and they ask, ‘We want to know why Giti Tire would consider this rural area?’

She said the Roseburg executives asked their consultant why they were taking them to Chester County, but once they got here, they saw the property and met the economic development team, and “he understood exactly why the consultant brought him here.”

And, Dean points out, Chester County landed Roseburg.

“I think what Giti did was open up everybody’s thought about Chester County. And we’ve seen people who have created new opportunities here because of Giti Tire.”

Not only other industrial clients who are looking, but commercial opportunities, such as the QT convenience stores, who said ‘if you landed a Giti Tire, we’re going to speed up our process to get into Chester County.’

“I think what you’ll continue to see is those types of operations just continue to appear,” said Dean.

The added attention has also brought attention to the fact that housing is a desperate need in Chester County.

“All of a sudden we have people in those areas of business: residential subdivisions, apartment complexes, looking at the area to say ‘maybe this is the next place we need to be,” Dean said.

“2017 was a good year; it was a year that taught us a lot. We always learn something with every new client. We learned how to better conduct some things, and we learned that we’ve been doing this a while, and the economic development team (and county government) are a good team,” she said.

There were some small business startups in 2017, and while Dean doesn’t handle those, she is conscious that their growth is also important to the county as a whole.

“Small business owners are the backbone of the economy, and there’s always a lot of questions about what we are doing to help them, but my hands are tied by the state regulations and legislation as to what I can do. But we are still a resource for them,” said Dean.

Also in 2017, the Patel family announced the building of the Holiday Inn Express.

“The Patel family came in and said they wanted to have the first quality hotel to service the needs of the Gateway and all of the industry that is coming in. And we’ve had a second hotel approach us,” she said.

“Chester seems to be the place where everyone is going ‘We need to pay attention there,’ and that’s exciting, because for so long, no matter what we did we couldn’t get anyone’s attention. We’re now on their radar screen,” she said.

The challenge she added is how to stay on the radar screen but still “remain us and not be a carbon copy of anybody else.”

For 2018, Dean said there are some multiple projects in some stage of completion, and some are very favorable towards Chester County.

“There used to be a trend when projects wanted to be completed in 12 months, and we saw that trend change to a 24-month project, just for making a decision…what we do is continue to wait, and answer any questions that these clients who are trying to make a decision have. We make sure we get them what they need as quickly as possible for them to make a great decision – not only for them to locate, but for us to make sure they’re the right client to be here.”

“I think 2018 is going to be bright. I think we’re going to be surprised with some of the things that happen,” she said.