EAST WHITELAND - At least one authority on economic development thinks Chester County talks the good talk about regional economic growth but is too "fat, dumb and happy" to carry through.
Gary Smith, who heads up the Chester County Economic Development Council, made the comments Wednesday during a panel discussion entitled "Chester County's Formula for Growth" presented by PECO Energy.
The panel tackled the questions of what drives Chester County's growth, what are its roadblocks and how the county fits in with smart regional growth. The event was held at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center in the Great Valley Corporate Center.
Still, the county has a lot to be happy about.
It has the lowest unemployment - 3 percent - in the region. It ranks 16th in the nation in college graduates with the highest median income and highest per capita personal income in the state, Greg Byrnes, PECO's director of economic and business development, told the group of about 150 people.
According to Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Economy.com of West Chester, the county's future is bright.
The nation is showing measurable job growth, creating 1 million jobs in the last three months. That job growth is broad-based, Zandi said, through health care, education and home-building, three areas where Chester County is strong.
The largest age group in the nation is 45. The next largest is 15, the kids of the 45s, Zandi said.
"As the 45s age, they'll use a lot of health care. The 15s will need a lot of education services," Zandi said. "Here in Chester County, the industrial mix of health care, education and financial services, in the next 10 to 20 years, will benefit from the aging population."
But, Zandi said, there is a caveat for the county's economic tailwind.
With the better job market comes higher interest rates. Fixed-rate mortgages have gone from a little more than 5 percent to a little more than 6 percent, which could slow the housing market.
Zandi further cautioned the region must work together.
"I travel a lot and we're not very well-organized," Zandi said. In contrast, places like Houston and its suburbs "speak with one voice."
The panel was composed of Smith; Rob Powelson, president of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry of East Goshen; Paul Janssen, city manager of Coatesville and Ken Lewandowski, director of Universal Technical Institute in Upper Uwchlan.
According to Smith, much hinges on economic development leaders in the region working together.
Officials and residents are complacent. They "talk a lot about it but don't care," Smith said.
Following the event, Smith said his "fat, dumb and happy" remarks were meant to convey the county was no longer hungry for economic development.
"We're happy where we are," Smith said. "Basically, there's apathy everywhere. We're getting the reputation, you can't do business in this county."
Lewandowski said his company, a technical school for automobile mechanics, has eight campuses in the United States. The company chose to build in Upper Uwchlan because it wanted a campus in the Northeast corridor on the perimeter of growth.
But Chester County has an identity problem, according to Lewandowski, who said the new campus is marketed as "suburban Philadelphia" because "Exton" is not a known location.
Janssen also commented on the county's lack of identity by using the example of two interns that worked for Coatesville last summer.
Both said they lived near the Downingtown interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as if they woke up in a toll booth every morning, he said.
Smith and Powelson agreed the county needs to hitch its wagon to Select Greater Philadelphia. The $16 million initiative to brand and sell the city and its suburbs is headed up by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and its president, former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker.
"Regional planning is not in vogue in Pennsylvania but regional planning is where we need to be," Powelson said.
The last speaker, Gerald H. Sweeney, president and chief executive of Brandywine Realty Trust, discussed the gradually improving commercial leasing market and then weighed in on the subject of regional economic cooperation.
Delaware and Virginia are cohesive, Sweeney said. The Philadelphia region, however, is "fractured" - there are a host of different entities to work with to get projects to fruition.