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Cumberland County Focuses on Commercial Real Estate Redevelopment Projects to Sustain Growth

Cumberland County continues to be the fastest growing county in Pennsylvania. For the most part, this is a great thing for the County and the businesses and residents who reside in its borders. However, the impact of this growth brings with it the concern that there may not be enough available land or workers to sustain it long-term.

In August 2016, Cumberland County decided to create a new affiliate to the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp (CAEDC). The Real Estate Collaborative LLC (known as the REC) is made up of a five-member board and focuses on buying, redeveloping and selling older industrial, commercial and public building sites. By seeking out smaller redevelopment projects, the goal is to fill in gaps and rehabilitate underused, vacant and brownfield sites that private developers shy away from due to heavy upfront remediation costs.

It’s a smart concept and one that is already gaining traction. We spoke with Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp., to learn more about the REC’s progress in just a little more than seven months. Here’s what’s going on!

Omni Realty: What are some of the projects the REC is taking on right now?

Jonathan Bowser: Since formation of the REC, we have purchase options on three key sites for redevelopment throughout Cumberland County. The first location is the Domestic Castings site in Shippensburg, an old casting industrial facility that has been around since the 1800’s. As a result, there is suspected environmental contamination and REC was successful in obtaining a state grant to assess any environmental concerns. The preliminary conceptual plan is a mixed use site of residential and commercial space.

The second site is a United Methodist Church in Carlisle. This is a 60,000 SF facility that is presently home to three United Methodist Churches that have merged into one and need more space to accommodate their growth. At this point, we are unsure of how to best repurpose the space and our currently completing a feasibility analysis. The site offers many possibilities! It’s situated in downtown Carlisle, close to Dickinson College and Penn State Dickinson Law School.

The third site is the former Lemoyne Middle School on Market Street in Lemoyne Borough. The school dates back to the early 1900’s and has been closed for almost four years. At this point, it is too early to discuss our development plans, but the REC will conduct a feasibility study to flush all concepts out. In all three projects, these are old buildings, with many barriers that make it conceptually difficult for a private developer to undertake without public resources and support.

OR: Have you been successful in accessing additional local, state, and/or federal funding to further leverage these projects?

JB: Yes, up to this point, we have been successful in obtaining Industrial Sites Reuse Program (ISRP) to assess the environmental concerns at the Shippensburg site. This program is a grant of 75% state funds and 25% local match for all assessment work. Also, we have identified other economic development programs for each site that we plan to make applications for in the near future. Some of those programs include Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), Multi-Modal Transportation Fund (MTF), Business in Our Sites (BOS), New Market Tax Credits (NMTC), and Historic Tax Credits. There are a lot of opportunities available, and we plan to take advantage of as many that make sense

OR: Do you find that you are competing with private developers and how has the consideration of private developers, if at all, impacted the projects you pursue?

JB: The objective of the REC is to not compete with private developers. Our focus is on difficult sites that private developers typically do not want to take on due to the project not being financially viable as a result of extraordinary development costs. This could be the demolition of a large structure, repurpose of a challenging structure, or a site with environmental contamination. These types of challenges add significant costs to any project and often go vacant for a significant period of time before being redeveloped. In addition, we look to collaborate with private developers on these sites, so the REC is not the sole investor/developer of the site.

OR: What assets would you say we don’t currently have in the local area that you’d like see come to Cumberland County as a result of REC’s efforts?

JB: Cumberland County, and our region as a whole, is very diverse in amenities, business types, and assets. For the REC, the focus is on creating sustainable jobs and increasing capital investment and the tax base through these projects. There seems to be a real move towards mixed use projects. As we continue to see retail change and big box stores downsize, the void is being picked up by smaller retailers and small business owners. In addition, millennials also want mixed use housing options that provide convenience and less reliability on cars for modes of transportation. As a result, most of our initial projects are looking at repurposing existing historic sites into mixed uses of residential and commercial tenants.

OR: Can you summarize the long-term vision CAED/REC has for Cumberland County?

JB: On a percentage basis, Cumberland County is the fastest growing county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This continued growth becomes a balance between growth and quality of life of the county’s residents. As an agency, we continue to support “greenfield” development (building new industrial facilities in vacant lots or farmland), but we also want to focus on redevelopment and repurpose of existing infrastructure in developed communities that are landlocked from future growth.

This means, collectively we have to collaborate, be creative, and have an open mind to the future development of our communities. Every community is fighting for quality jobs and people to reside in their neighborhoods. Our job at CAEDC and REC is to ensure we are doing our part to move the County forward and that existing residents, or prospective residents and visitors, have employment opportunities, recreational opportunities, access to quality healthcare, and a high overall quality of life.

This article was published on LinkedIn here.

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