Two business-based nonprofits have unveiled a draft plan for getting the Lancaster County economy — crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic — back on its feet in a safe, efficient way.
The Lancaster Chamber and the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County’s plan offers a strategy for the business community to gradually make strides toward full operation while adjusting to a “new normal.”
The "Lancaster County Economic Recovery Plan," which is supported by the Lancaster County Commissioners, has four core strategies:
— Deploying financial relief for businesses from existing and perhaps newly created programs, while advocating on local, state and federal levels for business needs and monitoring regulatory changes.
— Guiding businesses through whatever new protocols are required to operate safely.
— Supporting the rebound of anchor institutions and employers that are outsized drivers of economic activity while protecting business segments that will be slower to recover or have fewer advantages.
— And measuring the recovery’s progress to build confidence and, if needed, to tweak the plan.
Lancaster Chamber President and CEO Tom Baldrige and EDC President Lisa Riggs described the plan as a “responsible and thoughtful” way to bring structure, clarity and inclusiveness to the immense, complex task of reviving and reorienting the county’s 13,000 businesses.
“Without a guiding document like this, you’d have everybody doing the best they can, under really really difficult, uncertain and confusing circumstances,” said Riggs. “I don’t think anyone would argue that having everyone doing it on their own is the most efficient way.”
‘Good and essential framework’
Knowing that the chamber and EDC are charting a course toward a recovery will be both comforting and helpful to business owners, indicated Kitchen Kettle Village co-owner Michelle Rondinelli, the chamber’s chair.
“The recovery plan allowed me to breathe a little easier knowing that we have a starting point and something to build on from here,” she said.
The plan will be overseen by a leadership team, consisting of Baldrige, Riggs, a county commissioner and experts in public health and business operations. Five action teams will be appointed to implement the four core strategies plus handle communications.
Before that happens, though, the chamber and the EDC said their draft plan is being circulated among “key community leaders and individuals/organizations with niche expertise … to spark debate, discussion and improvement.”
While the plan is designed to revive and reorient county businesses, it does not address other major issues facing the county’s top elected officials such as public welfare, the social safety net and redevelopment.
Josh Parsons, chairman of the Lancaster County Commissioners, praised the plan.
“This plan will help us all be on the same page about moving forward. I am sure details will evolve given the constantly changing environment in which we are working, but it is important we have a plan to move forward as a community,” he said.
Commissioner Ray D’Agostino called it “a good and essential framework from which to begin to pull the pieces of the puzzle — guidance, resources and ideas — together to reopen the Lancaster County economy in a prudent and successful manner.”
Commissioner Craig Lehman recommended that the plan include “supporting businesses to develop tailored COVID-19 mitigation operations plans to protect their employees and customers going forward. Developing and preparing to operationalize these plans now, in preparation for transitioning to the new normal should be a top priority.”
Flexibility built into plan
The plan comes as the pandemic, in a mere six weeks, has caused more than 130 deaths here and pushed the local unemployment rate up more than five-fold to 19.2%, a rise started when Gov. Tom Wolf closed businesses he deemed not life-sustaining, to limit the spread of the virus.
The rate, the result of 55,000 county residents being unemployed, is believed to be the worst here since the Great Depression in 1929-1933.
“It is not just a sound plan, it is essential for our business community given the volume of disinformation and misinformation, as well as the lack of helpful information for business owners across the county …,” said EDC Chairman Robert M. Krasne, CEO of Steinman Communications, parent company of LNP Media Group.
“This effort intends to help business leaders navigate the challenges of determining how and when to bring employees back into the workplace and how to make businesses safe for customers," he added.
Flexibility is built into the plan.
“Uncertainty exists on many fronts. Planning for a variety of scenarios — which are inter-related — is needed to ensure the resumption of business operations can occur as safely, smoothly and efficiently as possible,” it says.
Presented on a 23-slide PowerPoint, the plan does not address the public health crisis caused by the virus, the chamber and EDC pointed out, or the resulting “tremendous need” for social and human services.
“Today’s priority remains following current public health guidance,” it says.
It’s too early to say what the plan’s budget will be, according to Baldrige and Riggs. Nor have dates been set for its implementation, as it’s not known when the region will attain Wolf's criteria for allowing idled businesses to reopen. But the plan does provide a 120-day timeline for the action teams’ potential tasks, once they begin their work.
The plan sees the recovery proceeding in three phases.
The phase now underway consists of “navigating the public health need and stop-gap economic relief.” Planning for the future phases – an eventual reopening, then rebuilding strength while adjusting to the “new normal” -- also can begin now.