The first Octorara Community Council meeting held Monday brought together a group of people essential to the recovery of the Octorara community. Led by Superintendent Thomas Newcome, elected officials and municipal representatives gathered along with members of the Chester County Economic Development Council and the Urban Research and Development Corporation (URDC) to collectively determine what the next step should be."Ask anyone who knows about school finances," Newcome said, "and they will tell you it is absolutely a broken system. Pennsylvania has one of the worst financial systems in the country.
"I think our best chance at tax reform has passed us," he said. "We've got to use the system we already have in Octorara, and that means creating more taxables."
An Octorara Comprehensive Regional Plan was developed in 2004. "Let's see what in here we're going to do and how we're going to do it," Newcome said.
"The comprehensive plans did not [originally] fit the Economic Development Plan," said Gary Smith, president of the Chester County Economic pretty much have everything in place. We have some tools and some availability."
Smith explained that his organization is not part of the Chester County Government. It was founded as a not-for-profit organization in 1960 by a group of people that were concerned with Chester County's economy. "When it started," Smith said, "we were thinking we needed to have an organization to look at the growth of the community." The council is continuously supported by private companies and businesses. Smith said they have planned 68 business parks in the county over the years.
"We are concerned about making sure we have a balanced economy," he said. "There are pockets of need throughout the county, (made up of 73 local governments); the majority of our work is spent with entrepreneur development. We support services such as site location, capitalization, international opportunities, transportation, an array of different services."
Tom McIntyre, also with the Chester County Economic Development Council, said the issue of revenue and taxes is "almost not fair [considering all of the government] mandates, growth issues, and health and safety issues, especially after 9-11. The school district is always a moving target.
"Instead of just looking at what can be done, let's look at what has been done (compared to what was recommended and never accomplished)," McIntyre said.
The Economic Development Plan was created by the URDC with the purpose of identifying opportunities to create jobs and generate new tax revenues. They studied each of the eight municipalities within the district and recorded the assets and constraints in each area. They identified several candidate sites for potential new business locations and selected five areas for further analysis. Finally, they recommended concepts and strategies for those five sites.
The plan called for the Planning Commission to work with the Economic Development Council to market the identified sites, recruit business prospects, and lobby for the necessary rezoning and infrastructure improvements.
"With the plan that we developed, the important thing was the purpose: how can we cause jobs and economic growth in the Octorara region?" said Marty Gilchrist, president of the URDC. "I think this report is still as relevant now as it was then. If we drove the same roads today [as we did when developing this plan], I think our conclusion for the best sites for business, industrial, and commercial development would be the same. It appears the needs are still the same."
The plan noted that while the district is well positioned between Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Wilmington, and economic growth is moving west, Octorara is still outside the mainstream path and residential development has hit this area pretty hard; now is the time to start planning. As a positive, it is easily accessible.
"You do have a tremendous growing workforce-a young workforce-here," Smith said. "They want to work in the community where they live and where their kids are. Employers know that and they will come. The major thing they want is to work where they can get the kind of workforce they need. We just have to provide an area for them to come to."
"I think the community needs to work together," Gilchrist said. "All [of the municipalities] are part of a unit whether they want to think they are or not."
Pointing out that West Sads-bury Commons generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the school district, Gilchrist said the next stage, assuming each municipality will agree to and adopt the Economic Development Plan, is to set the stage for land-use agreement. Following that, the areas need the zoning, water, and sewer that will allow the development. "You can't expect every parcel to be developed," Gilchrist said. "The Octorara region is heavily rural. You're going to have to focus together as a school district region. I think you each have to support each other and work together to balance economic development."
Walter Crellin, there on behalf of Christiana Borough Council, said Lancaster County has recently developed their own regional plan, which six municipalities in the county have adopted as their comprehensive plan and are working on zoning around that.
"That's a piece that needs to come together with the Chester County piece," he said, adding that Lancaster's regional plan did not take Octorara School District into account.
Smith warned that a residential explosion is coming back into the area, but said the corporation has identified small areas of land that have been set aside for commercial or industrial uses.
"There is definitely a desire on the part of Parkesburg to encourage industrial development as opposed to residential development," Ken Knickerbocker, representing Parkesburg Borough, said. He talked about a LERTA zone created in Parkesburg where a company can come in and improve the property without having to pay higher property tax right away; the reassessed evaluation is forgiven for the first five-year period.
"The stumbling block on LERTA is usually school districts not wanting to work with municipalities," Newcome said. "The Board of Directors in Octorara really wants to work on the community."
"People in our area are concerned with immediate changes; I hope council doesn't lose sight of that, Greg Esh of Sadsbury Township said as Newcome explained that the council will be discussing long-term plans. Esh added that he is on board with the development of an Octoara Community Coucncil. "I think it's high time people get a larger viewpoint of the area."
After Newcome, trying not to be over-zealous, suggested meeting three or four times a year, Gail Murphy, of Atglen Borough, returned with a suggestion of meeting every month. "We have a plan in place," she said, we have to implement it and move forward on it. It shouldn't take that long to knock it out.
Newcome gave the representatives some homework to do before the next meeting. He asked for a commitment as the first step; a vote of support in the form of a letter from each local government. "Talk to your groups and find out 'are we in?' and 'do we want to be a part of council?' We've got our state people interested in coming here. I think it's a real opportunity for us."
Senator Brubaker added that his involvement, push and pull are directly proportional to that of the local government. He said he will be in contact with each to see how they want to proceed.