With the two-decade-old question of what’s going on at Great Stream Commons seemingly answered, district managers, developers and real estate agents are turning to what future economic development will look like in Union County and the Valley.
All but 48 acres of the 500-acre Great Stream Commons are designated. Structures are being erected at some locations and plans are in the works following recent purchases.
Focus is now shifting back to developing existing locations across the county and region, including the soon-to-be-vacant Country Cupboard Restaurant and Shop, which many developers have been looking for all along. Focus Central Pennsylvania, an economic development organization covering seven regional counties, is showing 42 available commercial properties, a mix of lots for development and existing structures ready to be reoccupied.
Shawn McLaughlin, Union County director of planning and economic development, said about 70% of economic development inquiries in the region are companies looking for existing space without the burden of development. That means places like Country Cupboard and the old Weis Market location just down the road on Route 15 should be desirable.
The properties already have utilities, a motorway connection and sufficient parking spaces. All they lack is a developer.
“If we had an existing building in Great Stream Commons, the sale would have been a no-brainer,” McLaughlin said. “Most of these companies and corporations that come to us, or when we get a tip from the governor’s office, want a building that’s already there. You don’t want to buy raw crap and have the risk and time delays of going through permits, construction and all that hassle. They want to move into a new modern building on day one and we don’t have that in this region.”
Focus Central Pennsylvania’s current offerings present a mix of developed – the former Walmart location along Route 15 in Lewisburg – and awaiting development, including 10 acres east of Route 15 in New Columbia.
Elected officials and people charged with regional development said there is always interest in land and buildings.
“Most of these companies and corporations that come to us or when we get a tip from the governor’s office want a building that’s already there,” McLaughlin said. “They don’t want to buy raw dirt and have the risk and delay of going through permits, construction and all that hassle. They want to move into a new modern building on day one and we don’t have that in this region.”
McLaughlin said the region’s existing building stock for industrial manufacturing and commercial real estate is low and that developers should build here on a speculative basis.
“There are still many local and regional developers who feel there is still too much risk for that in this market,” McLaughlin said. “Buildings are being built, but we just don’t have that up here.
“If you think back twenty years ago, if we gave them the land we would have had taxable property. But it’s a tough sell to the taxpayers who foot the bill. They’re still competing with communities across the country and around the world that are giving away land,” McLaughlin said. “It’s how they attract investment to their state and communities.”
Lauren Bryson, executive director of Focus Central Pennsylvania, worked with Union County to sell the Great Stream Commons property. She said the future of development in the region is “a very big question,” noting that adaptability and flexibility will be key as current business owners will drive development.
“Most of the economic growth will come from existing businesses,” Bryson said. “It’s really about creating an environment where existing businesses can thrive.”
On its website, Focus Central Pennsylvania notes some of its recent sales, including the sale of a 380,000 square foot manufacturing facility on 34 acres for $12.5 million in 2016, a sale of a 260,000 square foot building on 52 acres for $8 $.1 million in 2018 — both in Union County — and a 120,000-square-foot building in Northumberland County that sold for $1.5 million in late 2020.
In the end, Bryson said she believes there are opportunities to build more local investment and growth.
“Growth will certainly continue,” Bryson said, noting that Pennsylvania as a whole is experiencing “moderate, steady growth,” and saying that the technology’s exponential growth is something to watch out for. I don’t see growth slowing down over the next decade, especially in infrastructure projects,” she said.
Infrastructure investment by local or county governments is key, said Art Bowen, who has been in the local real estate business for nearly 50 years. These improvements could help spur economic development in the area, along with the timeline for required regulatory approvals from local and state authorities.
“Extending sewage and water and gas lines to areas that could accommodate this type of development. Another factor is the time it takes to obtain approvals from the county, municipality and PennDot for the permits and permits,” Bowen said. Adding processes can take a year or more before properties can be sold or developed. “There should be a way to streamline process and approval times.”
Bowen was optimistic that further commercial investment could be forthcoming. He said recent real estate transactions over the past three years in the surrounding five-county region “suggest that we are on the cusp of increasing activity and interest. Because of the bypass, there was increased interest and sales that anticipated the completion of this bypass. New motels were built, land bought for new businesses.”
“The chambers of commerce and local developers are as optimistic about the future as I am,” Bowen said.