[Column] Could the pandemic of 2020 result in a population shift to Lebanon County?

4 min read6,253 views and 182 shares Posted June 11, 2020

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For the major cities in the Northeast, the last two decades have been a renaissance. Cities like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington are deep within the process of being reshaped and rebuilt. In the case of Philadelphia, luxury high-rise apartments and condos were suddenly appearing everywhere in and around Center City.

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The market value of real estate in Philadelphia and the other Northeastern cities was climbing by the day and there appeared to be no end in sight as prices skyrocketed. Apartments, condos, and brownstones were selling in the millions of dollars in some cases and there was a frenzy to buy them before prices got even higher.

It seemed as though millennials, those between the ages of 23 and 38, were especially aware of the advantages of living in an urban center. Number one on the list of advantages was the close proximity to the corporate center where they might work. No longer were they forced to deal everyday with the extra time and stress of the morning and evening commute. After all, you could exit the door of your luxury high-rise and the best advantages of the city were within walking distance. You didn’t need a car with all the expenses of parking and if necessary you could hail a taxi to access the theater, restaurants, or museums.

Millennials were not the only age group joining this social and cultural shift toward city life. Retirees that normally downsize anyway, now considered the convenience of being able to walk to their favorite corner deli, coffee shop, or ornate public library. Nothing better than sitting at a quaint table at your favorite outdoor Paris-like cafe and enjoying a summer day.

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It all appeared good… then came the pandemic of 2020

The concern and anxiety generated by COVID-19 is causing people to rethink the idea of living in a crowded city or even the close suburbs for that matter. From the beginning of this pandemic it was clear that cities were at the epicenter of the virus outbreak. As the number of cases reached hundreds of thousands and deaths climbed into the tens of thousands, cities were clearly not the place to be. It was evident that the population density within a small geographic area became a feeding ground for the virus. Historically, here in the United States, epidemics like cholera and influenza have played a big role in shaping where and how people live.

Now, what might all this mean for Lebanon County?

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First, let’s examine the pandemic related factors affecting those that are presently living and working in the city. It is important to consider that a substantial number of city workers were surprisingly successful at continuing their job responsibilities remotely via the internet during this pandemic. As a result, many corporate executives are now considering continuing and improving this shift to remote working platforms. Employees may be required to attend meetings at the corporate office monthly, but even group meetings can be accomplished online. The cost savings for a corporation with offices in a city like Philadelphia is substantial, beginning with reduced cost of expensive urban square footage that they no longer need for employees working at home. This new home working arrangement makes moving to the western counties of Pennsylvania even more likely for those that can afford to move.

Let’s now examine where these city dwellers might relocate. I think it is highly probable that this new population shift will move west, roughly following the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It is also possible that even if the shift follows the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the sprawl could either head north via the Northeast Extension or directly west on the Rt. 76 Turnpike connecting the entire state.

In examining these options, it is my opinion that the Lancaster, Lebanon, Hershey area would be the preferred choice for many of those migrating from the Philadelphia area. The reasons I am of this opinion is simple; people are more comfortable with an area they already know. The clean, healthy farmland of our area will be seen as exactly that, healthy, and healthy is what they will be looking for. Millions of tourists visit our area every year, many make this area a yearly vacation destination, therefore they are more familiar compared to the northeastern part of the state.

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There are other strictly economic reasons for migrating to our area beginning with the fact it is a wiser real estate investment. Talk to any builder in our area and they will tell you that the availability of land is at a premium, causing prices to steadily rise.

In the case of the Lancaster-Hershey area, available lots for new construction are nearly exhausted. Also consider the fact that both Lancaster and Hershey have become crowded and congested making driving within these areas troublesome.

It is also likely that the price of land in our area would not scare off someone that is accustomed to buying a luxury high-rise in any city in the Northeast. Even though the availability of land here in Lebanon County is not what it was, we are still at a lower market price than the Hershey or Lancaster area. Combine that with the fact that our property taxes are considerably less than Lancaster or Hershey and the probability of a population shift to Lebanon County becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is a mistake to underestimate the attractiveness of living here in Lebanon County. For a family seeking a healthy, safe, and convenient area to relocate, Lebanon County fits the bill. There is easy access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike for anyone that requires it. We are conveniently located between Lancaster, Hershey, and Harrisburg allowing us to take advantage of the services and entertainment there without dealing with the every-day congestion. Consequently, Lebanon County is a gem that has not yet been fully recognized as the perfect place for a family seeking to escape the city hoping to minimize the threat of future pandemics.

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Now, I realize that I am not telling anyone living in Lebanon County anything they don’t already know. At the same time, we must be aware of the possibility that our area could be in for a future influx of people seeking a healthy place to relocate their family. I don’t think the shift in population will be sudden, but I see continued growth at a greatly increased pace than was previously expected before the pandemic. I think we need to consider this possibility, so that if it does happen, we are not caught off guard.

Robert Griffiths is a former educator and a current educational consultant and Cornwall-Lebanon School District board member. He lives in South Lebanon.


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