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How Centre Region Grows Is Unique in Pennsylvania

by on January 31, 2017 5:00 AM

As the deepest darkest stretch of winter continues here in Happy Valley (make sure you’re taking your vitamin D supplements) there is one aspect of this season that stands out to me as I drive around town. With no leaves on many of the trees you get a different view of downtown State College as you approach from various directions.

One clearly different part of that view, especially at night, are the two new skyscrapers reaching toward the stars. With lights on in the upper floors at night they are clearly visible from a distance and change the outline of our bucolic borough. OK, maybe they’re not quite true “skyscrapers,” but compared to the rest of town they certainly feel that way. Our little haven in the hills is growing bigger. Soon to be joined by two more such tall buildings, and if local rumors are true, a few others after those.

Which brings to light one of the interesting facts about State College and the Centre Region: it’s growing. And it’s growing because people are moving here for an industry – education – that’s based here, something that is uncommon in the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What limited growth Pennsylvania is experiencing outside of Centre County is often a result of things outside its control.

Between 1970 and 1980, Pennsylvania’s population grew one-half-of-one-percent while the U.S. was growing 11.5 percent. Between 1980 and 1990 it grew one-tenth-of-one-percent while the U.S. grew 9.8 percent. Finally, between 1990 and 2000 Pennsylvania’s population grew 3.4 percent -- five times what it had in the previous two decades combined, but still the third slowest growth rate by percentage in the country behind West Virginia and North Dakota. And well below the 13.2 percent growth rate of the entire country.

Then between 2000 and 2010 Pennsylvania continued that growth rate of 3.4 percent -- rather anemic by the nationwide standard of 9.7 percent growth – but good enough to get ahead of nine other states rather than third from the bottom. Not to mention Philadelphia, after losing residents every decade since the 1950 census, finally gained 8,000 people from 2000 to 2010.

But when you look at the growth percentages on a map of Pennsylvania counties you will notice the largest percentage growth (56 percent) was in Forest County – due primarily to a new prison opened in 2004. But this took the county population from 5,000 to 7,700, an increase of only 2,700 people. So in numerical terms, not much of a factor.

However the next two largest percentage growths came from Pike and Monroe counties (23.9 percent and 22.5 percent respectively) that added 11,000 and 31,000 people. Which amazingly, were slowdowns from previous decades.

From 1970 to 2000 Pike County experienced growth rates each decade of 55 percent, 53 percent and 66 percent, adding 34,000 people over that time. Monroe County also had high growth rates of 53 percent, 38 percent and 45 percent, but because it had a larger starting base population it grew by 93,000 people – which, had it been Centre County, would have doubled our population over that time.

To put that in perspective, between 1990 and 2000 Monroe County grew by 26,000 people. Yet the state only grew by 18,000, meaning without Monroe County the state lost population.

For those who are not geographically encyclopedic with their knowledge of Pennsylvania’s counties, Pike and Monroe counties are along the state’s eastern border with the Delaware River where Interstate 80 crosses into New Jersey. In other words, Stroudsburg and the surrounding communities.

Why exactly did these areas experience meteoric growth rates when the rest of that state barely kept its proverbial head above water? Because they are now commuter communities for New York City. Anyone living in those areas knows that I-80 traffic through the Delaware Water Gap starts picking up at 5 a.m. every weekday for people who want to minimize their rush hour hassles. I know families who moved from Brooklyn and Queens to Pennsylvania because housing was so much cheaper. For them trading a 45-minute commute for a 90-minute one (at best!) was more than worth the quality-of-life change.

The rest of Pennsylvania’s top 10 counties for percentage growth between 2000 – 2010 are in order: Franklin, Chester, York, Centre, Lehigh, Northampton, and Adams. You’ll notice that other than our beautiful home in Centre County, all serve to some degree as commuter communities for New York City or the Baltimore/Washington metro area, as well as Wilmington, Del., and of course one Pennsylvania city, Philadelphia.

The salient point here is that the welfare of those counties and their municipalities are, in part, tied to industries that are based outside the state. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, does not have state income tax reciprocity with New York, so a good portion of the state income taxes paid by those people who live in Pennsylvania but work in New York never gets to Pennsylvania’s coffers.

All of which goes to show the inherent beauty of this industry model we have here in Centre County. The primary employer is based here, employs the bulk of its people here, collects the vast majority of its revenue here, and supports a wide range of ancillary businesses here. And as long as that business grows – simply a matter of admitting more students or raising prices (or both) – Happy Valley grows along with it. Unlike most of the rest of the state.

Of course the downside to putting all your eggs in one basket is if you drop the basket, State College goes back to being a farm on the way from Bellefonte to Pine Grove Mills. And for some of you, that might not be a bad thing. But that’s highly unlikely, don’t you think?




John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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