Warehouses, health care drive local economic growth

Jim Hook , Published 11:04 a.m. ET July 3, 2017 | Updated 1:33 p.m. ET July 3, 2017

CHAMBERSBURG – Franklin County is home to more trucks and more elderly.

The growth of jobs in warehousing and in health care is assured for the immediate future. Warehousing/transportation has been fastest growing sector of the county economy. Summit Health recently surpassed Letterkenny Army Depot as the county’s largest employer.

The nation’s love of buying online is driving the construction of big box warehouses along Interstate 81, the main truck route to the Northeast. About 12 percent of the nation’s economy travels I-81. Franklin County is within a day’s drive of half the population of North America.

“As we move more retail into warehouses you’re going to see more pressure on I-81,” said Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corporation. “The biggest infrastructure challenge we have is I-81. We’ve got to get to six lanes, and we can’t get there fast enough.”

About 8 million square feet of distribution warehousing is on the drawing board for I-81 from Greencastle to Shippensburg. A decade ago the county had just 11 million square feet of warehousing.

The planned warehouses would add another 1,600 daily truck trips to I-81, according to industry standards. About 14,000 trucks a day currently use the highway through the county, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The other growth sector of the county economy is health care.

“We have a naturally aging population in Pennsylvania,” Ross said. “Because we don’t tax retirement income, we are a haven for beltway retirees. The aging population will continue to grow.”

Summit Health, owner of the two hospitals in the county, broadened its plans for a lot at Interstate 81 Exit 3 (U.S. 11).

“We originally planned to place an urgent care in Greencastle,” spokeswoman Allison Schuchart said. “We decided we want to plan a facility similar to the Waynesboro Medical Office Building so we can provide convenient, accessible health care options to the Greencastle and northern Washington County communities.”

Construction should begin in the late summer or early fall, she said. Staffing at the Greencastle Medical Office Building will depend on the services offered. Summit Health has yet to decide what services will be offered.

Intermodal Park, formerly Antrim Commons. Blaise Alexander Chevrolet Volvo is also building in the park. What will be one of the area’s largest car dealerships is to open before the end of the year.

Three warehouses, averaging 1 million square feet each, have approvals for construction in the park.

Ten miles to the north, WCN Properties has begun construction on a 370,000-square-foot warehouse on WCN Drive. Plans are pending for a 725,000-square-foot warehouse across the street.

Drive another 12 miles north, three more major big boxes are approved to put 2.7 million square feet under roof in the United Business Park near Shippensburg.

The county currently has an unemployment rate of about 5 percent, a number that Ross considers to be full employment.

With thousands of warehouse jobs to be filled, where is the workforce coming from?

“It’s going to be a numbers problem for the region,” Ross said. “We’re growing, and we’re essentially at full employment now. The opioid issue affects those who are unemployed and affects their employability. That’s a challenge we have to address.”

Kurt Fuellhart and Paul Marr of Shippensburg University cautioned in their 2006 warehouse study: “While in the medium and longer term in-migration may alleviate some of these issues, one of the characteristics of the existing workforce that has been linked to the success of trucking and warehousing to date is the strong blue-collar work ethic and culture of work that it has bred. There is no guarantee that this can be sustained as the composition of the workforce changes.”

Fuellhart and Marr also wondered about sprawl — how long can the logistics/transportation industry be confined to the I-81 corridor when land there becomes more expensive compared to land farther away.

“Because the two industries are so visible on the landscape and impact local residents in their daily activities,” they said, “it will be critical to manage future growth so as to maintain the high quality of life the region is known for, while providing good jobs for the area’s residents.”

Franklin County is one of Pennsylvania’s leading agricultural counties with dairy, livestock and poultry leading the way. Several of the county’s small towns also have revitalization plans to preserve their individual flavors.

Chambersburg, the county seat, has garnered investment of about $10 million for downtown improvements. The Coyle Free Library is undergoing a major reconstruction. The long vacant former Chambersburg High School will see new life as urban apartments and offices.

Franklin County Commissioners are preparing to invest in a judicial center downtown.

“You hope that we’re attractive for folks looking for employment,” Ross said. “Hopefully we strengthen the quality of life. We can create more diverse job openings. Supply and demand for labor will drive wages up, and hopefully create more disposable income.”

Ross hopes to diversify the economy beyond the big boxes popping up on I-81 and expanding services for the elderly. He wants to strengthen other facets of the county economy – the defense industry at Letterkenny Army Depot, manufacturing, tourism and professional services.

Jim Hook, 717-262-4759