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Reading, PA, long known for outlet stores and the Reading Railroad on the Monopoly board, rolled the dice on a new idea two years ago and came up with a plan to bring more jobs to the area and breathe new life into its downtown.
Greater Reading: A Call to Action, published in September 2005 by the Initiative for a Competitive Greater Reading (ICGR), is an economic development plan that goes beyond job creation and reaches into the soul of the community to change the way it sees itself. The plan defines what the greater Reading area should strive for over the next 20 years.
The ICGR began in late 2003, when the Berks County Community Foundation (BCCF) and several local business leaders decided to bring higher-level thinking to economic development for the region. The group concluded that to attract new jobs, the community had to make decisions based on hard data, rather than speculation.
At the outset, BCCF established a fund to collect corporate donations for the initiative. However, it quickly became clear that BCCF would need to take a lead role in its execution. BCCF’s president, Kevin Murphy, and several board members began structuring a strategy board that would oversee the project and manage communication about the initiative.
“It’s probably a little unusual for a community foundation to get so heavily involved in economic development planning,” Murphy said, “but we felt it was the right time and we were the right organization. We felt that helping our region get its thinking and planning on job creation together was the most significant thing we could do to improve the quality of life here, which is our mission.”
The ICGR was chaired by BCCF board members Jerry Johnson and John Dever, and more than 130 volunteers participated in the process. BCCF contracted with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a research group led by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, which provided reams of demographic and business data for the strategy board to base its decisions on. The foundation also looked for unique ways to broaden the community’s view of economic development.
One of the most significant things BCCF did, which in retrospect proved to be a turning point in the ICGR process, was to bring Richard Florida, author of the Rise of the Creative Class, to speak at its annual meeting half-way through the process. Florida articulated what the ICGR teams wanted the region to be — vibrant, energetic, upbeat — in essence, a cool place to live that would attract new economy workers and businesses.
More than 600 people heard Florida’s message, which helped set the stage for the ICGR process to take hold. They heard Florida describe the new class of knowledge workers who were looking for things other than the traditional manufacturing workers of greater Reading’s past.
In addition to looking at ways to attract new economy workers, the teams looked for ways to leverage community assets, which include a concentration of food-processing companies, a complete fiber-optic network connecting greater Reading to Manhattan, and an East Coast location with proximity to the New York, Philadelphia, and Washington markets.
The teams also looked at examples from other communities. A group of local business and political leaders traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, a community that was worse off than Reading when it started its own turnaround and is now a bustling, thriving city.
The ICGR’s most significant outcome is the community’s commitment to seeing the plan to fruition. Johnson, who co-chaired the ICGR, agreed to stay on as a volunteer for another year to ensure that implementation stayed on track.
Several initiatives recommended in the plan are already underway. For example, one of the major findings of the report was that greater Reading needed to market itself like any other product. To accomplish this, the local tourism agency hired a top-notch community branding firm to develop a brand for the region. That new brand will be made public in early 2006. In some ways, the new brand will reflect what people outside the community already know but those inside are only beginning to understand.
“While we’ve been worried about manufacturing job losses and changes in the community we used to know, people from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas have been eying the idyllic landscapes and the ‘really neat’ urban core that make greater Reading what one national expert called ‘the hidden jewel of the Northeast’,” Murphy said.
The ICGR process and its subsequent implementation, as overseen by Johnson and the Berks Economic Partnership, were possible because of corporate and government support. Local banks and businesses stepped up early with large commitments to help fund the $700,000 initiative. State and local government supplied much-needed grant money to start the projects recommended in the report.
While some locals say the “stars were aligned” around the ICGR, it was really the people who were aligned. By including public, private, and philanthropic leaders in the process, the ICGR received the necessary buy-in to become a process that will create lasting change for greater Reading.