Saturday, April 23, 2005

03: "Why are they trying to pave over Adams County"

So where does all this talk about development in Adams County eventually lead? Let's look at what makes Adams County tick.

First, Adams County is very fortunate in that it has two major industries that allow it to thrive. The better known tourism industry thrives because of the presence of the Gettysburg Battlefield National Military Park and the Eisenhower Presidential Site. There is no nice way to say this, but Gettysburg residents, and others, have been making a living off the battle and the 51,000 casualties since July 5, 1863, when the first photographs of the Battlefield were taken, showing the dead, and the destruction. Shortly after that, burial parties were sent out to gather the dead and get them into the ground as quickly as possible. The efforts of local attorney David Wills to establish the National Soldiers' Cemetery that fall, attracted not only the President of the United States, who played second fiddle to the greatest American orator of his time, Edward Everett, it also attracted thousands of people who spent their money on food, lodging, transportation and some private tours of the battlefield given by locals who "knew their way around". Thus, Gettysburg's enormous tourism industry was born, thanks in part to a President, an attorney, some photographers, and a whole bunch of curious tourists.

Nestled in the northern part of Adams County, on the eastern slopes of South Mountain a few miles west of York Springs, are 20,000 acres of orchards. Apples, peaches, plums, and pears are the principle fruits grown there. It is truly the Apple Capital of Pennsylvania -- perhaps of the region. Not only is the fruit absolutely, and delightfully delicious, the view is absolutely and delightfully spectacular. Drive along PA Route 94 from Mount Holly Springs in Cumberland County, east over South Mountain to York Springs and you will see orchards stretching as far as the eye can see on top of the mountain, and on its eastern slopes. Some of the major fruit wholesalers in the nation have large canning operations here. Other outlets are more local, as more than a few owner-families have large stands, some of which are open year round, that sell the delicious fruits, alongside locally grown vegetables. Want corn? Stop at one of the fruit stands from late July on and pick up a dozen ears along with your cantaloupe, tomatoes and peaches. The fall cider is something to be experienced. Ice cold, and freshly made, you can sometimes taste four or five different types of apples as the cider is going down your throat.

You'd think these two industries would run over the late spring to mid fall, and then shut down for the colder months. Not so. Neither of them shuts down completely. Even in the heart of winter, in snowy February, tourists are out wandering the Battlefield, and visiting the downtown relic and souvenir stores. Even in February, some of the larger fruit stands are open, selling apple butter, jams and jellies, preserves, cider, and deer apples. True, the seasonal employment runs from mid April to early November, with a large portion terminating at the start of the school year in late August. But the industries keep going. The canneries run just about year round.

So, what does all this mean in terms of development. For one thing, development, both commercial and residential, is not only encouraged by local government, it is actively sought. The drive to bring jobs to the county is the publicly flouted reason for this effort. One could surmise from this that Adams County suffers from a high unemployment rate. The reality is, according to public statistics on the website of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, that even when the national and state unemployment figures hover at or above 5%, Adams County rarely exceeds 3%. When it does, it is the heart of the winter when just about all outdoor and tourist and fruit growing/processing activity slows to a crawl, and in a matter of weeks, it is well below 2.5% again. Most counties in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else for that matter) would give their eye-teeth for numbers like that. And the other reality is this: truth be told, the local Economic Development Corporation has very little to do with it. Who the heck are they anyway?

Economic Development Corporations were formed a few decades ago when runaway inflation was holding back the economy in many areas. It was a way to get local business leaders involved in bringing in new industry and commerce to a depressed area. Government funding does apply, though they claim otherwise. Because as corporations they are not subject to the Public Sunshine laws they can, and do, act in secret. Phew! Anyone else smell that?
Locally, the Adams County version worked for several years to lure WalMart to the county in an attempt to put a huge distribution center at the Hunterstown exit of US 15 north of town. It was a secret project, with juicy details of things like "mystery business to bring 100 new jobs to the county", leaked to the press. Finally, they could contain the truth no longer, and the deal leaked out to the public. The response was instantaneous, loud, and firm: NO WAY! People wrote letters detailing estimated traffic loads on the highways, and unemployment figures that belied any effort to bring jobs to Adams County. The killer was a letter that detailed the effects on the proposed parking area's runoff during an average thunderstorm. WalMart pulled out. Within a year, the very visible leader of the ACEDC was kicked upstairs and they have been very quiet since. Primarily they are working to get businesses to move into the new Convention Center complex being built along US 15 at US 30. A hotel, a restaurant, a multi-plex cinema, are scheduled to go in with the Convention Center itself, but many of the shops remain unfilled. Meanwhile, the drive-through vista of Adams County gets less green every day.

You might ask, at this point, why is there such an enormous effort to develop, commercially and residentially? And why here in Adams County. Here are some of the reasons:
  1. Adams County has lots of green lands, and any land is available at the right price.
  2. Adams County is willing to invoke eminent domain to get any parcel of land it wants for development.
  3. The amount of money to be made in commercial and residential development is enormous. To look at the figures would scald your eyes!
  4. Very little of that money makes its way into the public coffers of Adams County.

Then you might ask yourself, "Is all this really necessary?" The short answer is "No". With incredibly low unemployment and no shortage of available housing, there is no need to build more houses. With an enormous private convention facility south of town, there is no need to build another one east of town. Of course, if you want to have an alternative to the privately owned convention center, then, yes, you need another one. After years of having one, and lately no movie theater screens closer than Hanover, now we are getting two cinemaplex systems one with 13 screens and another with 7. Is this not overkill? Can this area support that many?

The answer is "Yes, if you let the development continue."

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