One Year Later Scranton Epitomizes Change

December 12, 2004

We got some frank warnings when we first came to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area two years ago gathering string for our big report “Back to Prosperity.”

Don’t get your hopes up, somebody said.

Nor did much of what we soon learned dispel caution.

We were troubled by the pessimism of articulate leaders who doubted common sense and disciplined strategy could replace the “art of the deal” in the Commonwealth’s economic development programs.

We were sobered when local commissioners and business leaders described how the constant cross-purposes of your 176 local governments, hundreds of interest groups in Harrisburg, and the state’s own agencies stymie reform.

No wonder we harbored few illusions about the difficulty of making an impact when it came time to release our report on Pennsylvania’s troubling economic and development trends last December.

Well, what a difference a year makes.

One year after we released our study, we here at Brookings have grown downright bullish about the prospects for change in Pennsylvania—and especially in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Why are we so upbeat?

In part, our optimism stems from the attention Pennsylvanians have paid our tough report.

Two dozen newspapers all over the state ran page-one stories on our research last December, and many of them—like the Scranton Times—invested significant resources to go deeper.

Beyond that, we have been gratified by Harrisburg’s response to our depiction of the state’s troubles.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have heard us out. Key Republican leaders—and not just Democrats—have read “Back to Prosperity,” and now several bills are circulating, including one introduced by Rep. John Yudichak, D—Luzerne County, that would create a panel to reassess the state’s flawed local government framework.

Even more encouragingly, the governor and his cabinet—rather than burying a document that proposed difficult reforms—have owned up to many of our criticisms of past policy and begun to take action.

PennDOT scuttled 26 major highway projects last spring, freeing up $5 billion for more strategic investments or rehabilitating existing roads. A new Economic Development Cabinet has been created to work with a revitalized Interagency Land Use Team to better focus the state’s actions and investments. And recently, Gov. Rendell revived the State Planning Board, asking it to recommend better ways to manage development and local government.

Sure, there’s much more to do, especially on modernizing local government and subordinating investments to a true economic vision. Still, Pennsylvania’s are impressive steps for a state that frequently settles for gridlock.

Yet more than just news clippings and policy tweaks in Harrisburg make us hopeful this winter.

Far more important, we’ve been humbled by the extent to which Pennsylvania’s regions have taken our call for focus to heart—and nowhere has that enthusiasm been more apparent than in the Northeast.

All along we’ve maintained that the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area has an outstanding potential to catalyze growth because it possesses exceptional assets: a striking valley setting; proximity to New York; distinctive, human-scaled cities and towns and higher-ed institutions.

However, it has also seemed to us that neither the Commonwealth nor the valley has been able to harness these strengths.

Yet now look: Suddenly the region is abuzz with new downtown initiatives, new optimism, and new leaders who mean business about ending business-as-usual and substituting strategy and collaboration for fractiousness.

Some of this, to be sure, has been in the making for several years, as Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, new commissioners like Luzerne County’s Todd Vonderheid, and others began to get the region’s house in order.

But we have also been gratified by the extent to which the region has embraced “Back to Prosperity” as a kind of guide to harnessing its strengths and focusing its appeals to Harrisburg as part of a sustained statewide campaign to boost the state’s economic competitiveness and quality-of-life.

To that extent, the “Brookings report” no longer belongs to us: Pennsylvanians own it.

And that, I would say, brings up a happy irony: Could it really be that tough, skeptical, reform-averse Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are going to emerge as models of revival for the troubled Rust Belt?

Forgive us, folks, but we’re bullish.