New downtown projects opening. A hospital, nuclear plant and department store closing. And ongoing struggles for dairy farmers and emergency services.
The new year promises to bring dynamic changes to Lancaster County on many fronts.
Here are some of the trends and events that LNP’s journalists expect to be covering in 2019.
Big center city projects to open
In 2018, downtown Lancaster reverberated with hammers clanging, saws whirring and construction vehicles rumbling, setting the stage for a slew of ribbon-cuttings in 2019.
It could be a long time before the city again sees so many large projects coming to fruition in such a short span.
Completion is expected this spring at the east tower of the Lancaster Marriott in Penn Square. The $39.4 million expansion adds 110 rooms to the existing hotel, bringing the total to 416.
The Marriott, which connects to the Lancaster County Convention Center, is owned and operated by Penn Square Partners in a building leased from the city redevelopment authority. The general partner in Penn Square Partners is an affiliate of High Real Estate Group. An affiliate of LNP Media Group, publisher of LNP and operator of the website LancasterOnline, is a limited partner.
Across the street from the Marriott, Fulton Financial is building a $21 million expansion of its headquarters, adding space for about 400 employees. It, too, is expected to be completed in early 2019.
A few doors down from the Fulton expansion, renovations are in the works at 29 E. King St., where Lititz-based Woodstream Corp. plans to move its headquarters in a few months. It will have space for up to 225 employees.
Meanwhile, in the 100 block of North Queen Street, a once-in-a-generation transformation is under way across from Binns Park at Lancaster Square.
On the plaza’s north side, renovations totaling about $16 million will wrap up in the first part of 2019 at the Hotel Lancaster, which is rebranding as a Holiday Inn. On the south side, the former Bulova Building is being converted into 101NQ, mixed-use complex. That $25 million to $30 million project is on track to open in October, and will be the headquarters for business software and consulting firm Cargas Systems, now based in the office park at the Lancaster Stockyards.
Still to come are the renovation of the public plaza itself, as well as a 300-space garage and a new home for the Lancaster Public Library in place of the abandoned annex on the square’s east side. Those projects are expected to begin in 2019.
There has also been discussion of building a small movie theater abutting the Hotel Lancaster’s south facade.
Shifting suburban retail scene
Is Lancaster County finally properly “stored”?
In the 1990s and 2000s, developers proposing new shopping centers argued that Lancaster County was “understored,” compared to similar metropolitan areas.
That’s no longer the case, even as the county’s population continues to grow, with the 2018 openings of the suburban Shoppes at Belmont and The Crossings at Conestoga Creek, an expansion of Tanger Outlets, plus the completion of a number of smaller retail projects.
Indeed, for the first time in recent memory, there are no major retail projects on the drawing boards in Lancaster’s suburbs.
But the burst of openings in 2018 — which filled a number of prime sites with powerhouses such as Wegmans and Whole Foods, and erased our “understored” status — isn’t the only cause of that. Retailers know that the fastest sales growth is in e-commerce, not stores.
So expect the focus of local retail news to shift in 2019 from developing new centers to filling holes in existing centers.
To date, many vacancies have lasted months, rather than years, as newbies such as Hobby Lobby and At Home have jumped at the chance to come here by going into existing centers.
Park City, the county’s largest retail destination, and The Shops @ Rockvale, its second largest, are finding out whether that trend will carry over to them.
Park City is working to fill the vacant Bon-Ton space, and will also need to fill the Sears space following last week’s announced closing of its store there. Rockvale is razing empty spaces and retooling its niche.
Farming’s tough row continues
The continued shakeout in the dairy industry and intensified efforts to reduce soil runoff from farms are two of the biggest issues facing Lancaster County agriculture in 2019.
Look for more auctions of dairy herds and equipment as farmers pursue new sources of on-farm income, or get out of agriculture altogether.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania had 12,000 fewer cows in November than it did a year earlier amid a glut of milk and low prices that are expected to continue in 2019.
The state’s milk production is more than 4 percent lower than a year ago, and could slip further in 2019 as growing dairy states such as Texas, Colorado and Kansas increase production.
Meanwhile, farmers here will face increasing pressure to reduce harmful runoff of soil and nutrients into local waterways that lead to the Chesapeake Bay.
As the state’s agricultural powerhouse, intensely farmed Lancaster County is a key target of state and federal regulators seeking to make greater strides in reducing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
Pennsylvania is far behind in its promise to reduce the runoff of soil, manure and commercial fertilizer into the bay watershed.
Though the state is also demanding more control of stormwater runoff from urban and suburban municipalities around Lancaster County, farmers are clearly in the crosshairs.
There are some good signs of progress and indicators of increased funding for stream-protection projects in 2019.
The state Department of Environmental Protection says that 96 percent of nearly 3,000 small farms that were checked in the Susquehanna watershed now have plans to prevent soil and fertilizer runoff.
The rub now is to get cash-strapped farmers financial help to put in place on-the-farm conservation measures called for in those plans.
Good news arrived with the long-delayed passage of a new federal farm bill in December. The bill increases the amount of cost-sharing funds and, just as important, allows officials to target priority areas such as Lancaster County.
So look for more tree plantings, grasses and similar projects along local waterways in 2019 as farmers and conservation groups install the “riparian buffers” that have become a preferred “best management practice” for protecting streams and rivers that feed the bay.
Goodbye for TMI?
The looming shutdown of the unprofitable Three Mile Island nuclear plant could mark the biggest change in the local energy industry, which includes three hydroelectric facilities in Lancaster County and two nuclear plants and a coal- and gas-fired plant on its borders.
Despite numerous calls for government intervention to save TMI’s 675 jobs, no solid plan to avert the plant’s scheduled September closing has materialized.
TMI and other nuclear plants have struggled to compete with power producers that make electricity using inexpensive natural gas, such as the product now flowing through the new Atlantic Sunrise pipeline through western and southern Lancaster County.
In November, a bipartisan group of 75 legislators urged colleagues and Gov. Tom Wolf to formulate a rescue plan, as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut have done to save nuclear plants in those states.
But there is plenty of pushback from consumers, retiree groups, the natural gas industry and some, but not all, environmental groups to let nuclear power fade away.
In December, PJM Interconnection, which controls the transmission grid in Pennsylvania and 13 other states, did the pro-TMI faction no favors by releasing a report that says the grid would be just fine in the future even with the loss of nuclear power.
While TMI, owned by Exelon, risks extinction in 2019, another aging producer of electricity is continuing its multiyear plan to improve efficiency and reduce pollution.
York County’s Brunner Island power plant will continue its gradual transition from coal to natural gas in 2019 and beyond, said Todd Martin, spokesman for plant owner Talen Energy.
Energy prices for consumers are expected to rise slightly in 2019.
Natural gas prices, which nearly doubled in 2018, are expected to fall after the winter as supplies continue to increase.
Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale fields produced their highest volume of natural gas ever in 2018.
Gasoline prices fell through most of 2018, but with OPEC nations agreeing to decrease production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects gas prices to rise modestly by about 6 cents a gallon in 2019.
The administration also predicted that residential electricity prices would rise by 3.2 percent in 2019.
Heating oil prices for consumers are expected to drop slightly in 2019.
Health care consolidation
Apart from coverage changes under the Affordable Care Act, the biggest U.S. health care trend in recent years has been shifting power dynamics as smaller organizations merge into larger ones, and Lancaster County is no exception.
Four major providers operate locally — Penn Medicine, Penn State Health, UPMC and WellSpan Health.
In the last five years, all have either entered Lancaster County by acquiring smaller organizations, or else greatly expanded their presence here. They have also steadily acquired small medical practices that used to be independent.
Universal Health Services, a national chain based in King of Prussia, entered the scene by partnering with Penn Medicine to open the 126-bed Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital this summer, vastly increasing the county’s supply of inpatient psychiatric care.
Earlier this month, UPMC Pinnacle announced its Lancaster city hospital best known as St. Joseph’s would close by March, with some but not all services being consolidated at its newer sister hospital in Warwick Township.
One key question for 2019 is what impact the opening of the behavioral hospital and the closing of the former St. Joe's will have on patients, and how it affects the power dynamic in the market, which Lancaster General Health — part of Penn Medicine since 2015 — has long dominated
Meanwhile, UPMC’s health insurance arm is about to enter the individual market here, and Penn State Health is about to open its first big outpatient center here.
Amid all that action, consumers, patients and businesses here continue to struggle under high and rising health care costs, and the Central Penn Business Group on Health is trying to use information to give businesses here more power in the health care market.
County’s clout shifts in 2 capitols
Lancaster County is bound for more clout in Harrisburg and less in Washington in 2019.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, is rising to one of the top roles in state government while U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker will serve his second term in D.C. — but this time will be in the minority party.
As the new House majority leader, Cutler will play a key role in shaping the policy agenda for the Pennsylvania House — and, therefore, the state.
Recently re-elected Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will undoubtedly lock horns with Cutler and the GOP-controlled Legislature, so don’t expect every bill introduced by your local legislator to sail through and become law.
But keep an eye out for whether any longtime Lancaster County issues make their way into the debate.
Regulatory reform — notably the Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting process — is likely going to be one of those. Specific proposals, like Cutler’s bill to appoint statewide judges based on merit rather than general election, could also come to the forefront.
Statewide priorities for the Legislature will continue to be pension reform, education funding and expanding the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases.
As for the 2019-20 budget outlook, at least one forecast — from the state’s Independent Fiscal Office — projects another $1 billion deficit going into the next fiscal year.
After a few years of solving deficits with borrowing and gambling expansion, it’s not clear where else our elected officials might look to fill the gaps this time around.
In Washington, meanwhile, Smucker may have a harder time getting some of his bills through the now-Democratic-controlled U.S. House. Still, he has said he will continue to push for priorities like budget process reforms and expanding apprenticeship opportunities.
The avalanche of political news in the era of President Donald Trump isn’t about to slow down in 2019.
It’s a municipal election year, with important local races for commissioner, district attorney and judge in Lancaster County, as well as many races in boroughs, township and school districts.
But make no mistake — the build-up to the 2020 presidential race is going to dominate political headlines this year.
Democrats looking to win their party’s nomination are vowing to start announcing their campaigns as soon as January, and the Democratic National Committee has already announced a string of 12 primary debates will begin in June.
Could we see one or more of those debates in an important bellwether state like Pennsylvania? Will U.S. Sen. Bob Casey follow through on considering a run himself?
Trump, meanwhile, will battle with a new divided government as Democrats rise to power as the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And for the first time in his young congressional career, Lancaster County’s U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker will serve in the minority among the GOP ranks.
The races to replace outgoing county Commissioner Dennis Stuckey and District Attorney Craig Stedman, who’s running for judge, will dominate the 2019 local elections. Most other countywide row offices — from sheriff to treasurer and prothonotary — will be on all county ballots, too.
The jockeying for these positions is already underway, so keep an eye for who the local Republican and Democratic parties endorse in February.
Funding emergency services
The purse strings are tightening as Lancaster County municipalities try to figure out how to provide emergency services at an affordable cost.
Will more Lancaster County police departments shake up their contracts next year?
In 2019, East Petersburg Borough will pay Manheim Township nearly 40 percent more for police coverage under a last-minute, one-year contract.
Terre Hill Borough opted for state police coverage in 2019 instead of continuing to pay East Earl Township for police services.
Nearly a third of the county's 60 municipalities will be relying on state police coverage in 2019.
But what about that proposed $25-per-person fee for municipalities that rely exclusively on state police coverage? Gov. Tom Wolf proposed the measure in 2017 and again this year. It could come back on the table in 2019.
While municipalities wrestle with how to best provide police coverage, they have also been pushed to offer more help to the volunteer fire companies and emergency medical crews that serve their communities.
Many fire companies and ambulance services are struggling to stay afloat, and looking for ways to balance the costs of career and volunteer staffs.
Given the recent trends, a few fire companies and ambulance services could consolidate. Some industry experts say that could be for the better, although others worry that consolidation could degrade the individuality of small-town organizations.
Educating all students
“Equity” is a word you’ll likely be hearing plenty of next year in discussions about education.
From funding to standardized tests to the racial makeup of faculty, equity is one of the most pressing issues school administrators and legislators will be grappling with here and across the state in 2019.
Look for stepped up efforts to accelerate the implementation of the state’s basic education funding formula, which was created in 2016 to generate more support for historically underfunded school districts.
Currently, only 8.8 percent — or $539 million of this year’s $6.1 billion basic education allotment — is distributed through the formula, and it creeps only slightly higher each year.
Inequities in education funding will be taken up in court in 2020, as the result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of School District of Lancaster and five other districts, as well as parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
Also creating an inequitable situation is a statewide shortage of nonwhite teachers. That has led to vast racial disparities in school districts — especially ones such as School District of Lancaster and Columbia Borough — that serve large numbers of Hispanic and black students.
Look for these districts and others to intensify their efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.
And who can forget standardized tests?
School administrators here seem to agree that high-stakes testing isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Students who are economically disadvantaged, for example, typically perform worse on tests than their more affluent peers.
In one move in that direction, state lawmakers this year removed a requirement that high school students demonstrate proficiency on standardized Keystone Exams before they graduate.
No doubt many critics of standardized testing would like to see more such moves in 2019.