Lebanon County is at a crossroads. 

That was the recurring theme during the State of the County address presented by county and other officials to more than 200 attendees on Wednesday at Lebanon Valley College. 

At the intersection of that crossroads is the renewal over the next 18 months of the county’s comprehensive plan, which is a roadmap that will guide county planning for the coming decade once it is completed, according to Julie Cheyney, director of the Lebanon County Planning Department. 

Read More: Lebanon County to apply for comprehensive plan state funding

“The county is at a crossroads with its identity and direction for future development, so I’d like to take this opportunity to give you something to consider and hopefully recruit some of you incredibly talented and knowledgeable people to jump on board and be part of the process for this comprehensive plan update,” said Cheyney.

She announced the county was just awarded a 50-50 matching grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for the comprehensive plan that, when added to the county’s matching contribution, totals $177,000.

Cheyney shared the project’s timetable now that funding has been secured. 

Background studies and demographic analysis will be completed by February, public and stakeholder forums and input finished by next August, the draft plan will be available for public review by next October and adoption of the plan is slated for the end of 2025.

The key to crafting a successful plan is participation by all stakeholders across Lebanon County, Cheyney told LebTown after the program.

“The comprehensive plan is the preparation for action, but the real work is in the planning,” she said. “That is the problem-solving and idea-generating work sessions; the conversations and interactions with public officials, stakeholders, residents, business owners and organizations that will provide vital knowledge and insight.”

Cheyney emphasized that the plan is not owned by any single entity, including her department and county government.

“Any successful comprehensive planning process demands citizen input from the onset and needs to recognize that this is the expression of community-wide values,” she added after the meeting. “A plan built on a solid foundation of local input can represent a mandate that makes action steps feasible.”

During her presentation, Cheyney said DCED has identified five key points to make a successful plan possible.

  • Focus on relevant, real community issues.
  • Organize the plan the way local officials and citizens think.
  • Devise practical and workable recommendations.
  • Recruit partners and create capacity to implement the plan.
  • Get local ownership of the plan and commitment to implement it.

“Although all of these are important for a successful plan, I believe the most critical to our success is number 4,” said Cheyney. “Without buy-in from the community, the plan will never get off the ground.”

She noted the comprehensive plan will dovetail with other studies that have been recently completed – including one for housing and another for workforce development needs. Municipalities comprising the Cornwall-Lebanon School District will work on a regional plan this fall, and that data also will be incorporated into the county’s comprehensive plan.

Lebanon County, just like other areas in the nation, is in a housing crisis with affordability and availability, according to Nicole Gray, executive director of Community Health Council. 

While Gray said her portion of the program provided the most sobering statistics, the numbers do provide food for thought.

Eight of the top 10 current occupations in Lebanon County do not earn enough money to afford a median priced home of $240,000 or a rental unit listed at about $1,300 per month. Additionally, there is a low threshold for residents to either rent or afford to purchase a home due to continuing low inventory.

Read More: Few changes expected in PA after Realtor ruling ends model 6% commission

It was stated by another presenter that Pennsylvania workers must receive about $22 per hour to be considered earning a living wage.

“There is a deep economic imbalance we need to solve: People who work here can’t afford to live here. There are too many low-wage, low-skill jobs. And people who live here, work elsewhere, seeking higher paying, higher skill jobs,” said Gray.

Gray also highlighted food insecurity, stating those numbers are greater in Latino (23 percent) and Black (18 percent) populations and especially children, who are 71 percent more likely to suffer than adults. Overall, about 10 percent of the Lebanon County population of 143,000 residents experience some sort of food insecurity.

Despite these numbers, she said there’s hope for the future and encouraged attendees to determine what kind of county they want Lebanon to be. The calls to action for a brighter tomorrow include:

  • Referring people to existing programs.
  • Funding programs that keep people healthy.
  • Adopting a countywide housing strategy.
  • Being open to creative housing/zoning solutions.
  • Destigmatizing mental health care for adults and especially our youth.
  • Providing more health care and resources to senior citizens.
  • Attracting higher pay and higher skill jobs.

“I think we need to decide what our long-term goals are for the community … in all areas of life – from work to recreation,” said Gray. “It’s a good time to come together around a vision for Lebanon County that supports sustainable growth and the health of those that live here.”

She called for a countywide housing department to address the housing crisis, advocating for housing across all affordability levels and jobs with higher wages and higher skills.

“So when a county resident does make a commitment to their health, Lebanon County can support them with lifestyle programs, safe streets, a strong economy, fair and equitable housing and abundant and affordable food,” said Gray. “I do know these statistics can be somewhat hard to swallow, but I do believe the future is bright and together we can create a better Lebanon County.”    

Karen Groh, president & CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, provides opening comments during the 2024 State of the County address at Lebanon Valley College. (James Mentzer)

Karen Groh, president & CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, highlighted the workforce development needs of the county, noting this issue dates back to chamber meeting minutes in the nonprofit’s archives. 

“We’re never going to fix the problem completely, but what we can do is move the needle a little bit,” said Groh. “We can continue to address issues and look for innovative solutions so that we can prepare for a stronger future. It doesn’t mean that it will all go away; it’s like any issue in any area – you just continue to improve upon it.”

Groh highlighted the chamber’s advanced study on future workforce needs, which was funded through a federally funded American Rescue Plan Act grant disbursed by Lebanon County Commissioners.

She said the study was designed to identify the emerging workforce in the next five to ten years. It also addressed: What skill sets will employers need from that workforce? Are area educational facilities equipped to train students? Does education have the ability to adapt to address those needs?

The study concluded that a local workforce training center is needed in Lebanon County to address the workforce needs of local employers.

Read More: Chamber seeks partnerships for workforce study recommendations

Groh had told LebTown earlier this year that the chamber was seeking partners to implement the study’s findings. Following the meeting, Groh said that search is ongoing with plans to ramp up those efforts this summer.

She told the audience that workforce barriers include housing, transportation, equity and access to child care, with those workers being paid $12.50 an hour to provide that service. Groh added those employees are required to obtain numerous child care credentials but are still paid low wages.

Groh said next steps include paying workers a living wage as a baseline to their compensation.

“For future consideration, we need to look at skilled jobs that pay minimally a living wage for workers to support themselves in a modern economy,” she said. “I think we did see a big change in wages, especially over the pandemic, but that certainly affected us with inflation and the cost of doing business.” 

State of the County program attendees network prior to the start of the presentations at Blair Music Hall at Lebanon Valley College. The program was sponsored by the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce. (James Mentzer)

It was noted during opening remarks from the three County Commissioners that workforce needs impact the public sector. 

County commission chairman Robert Phillips said that while the county currently employs over 700 workers, it still has a number of vacancies that need to be filled. Because Lebanon County is smaller in population than neighboring counties, recruitment and retention efforts for county positions are more difficult to achieve and maintain.

Later in the program, county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said about 150 positions are open in county government, mostly in public safety.

Bob Dowd, director of the Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services, told the audience that public safety is also at a crossroads. He said the loss of emergency volunteer personnel was identified during the crafting of the county’s new EMS mitigation plan as a “risk factor” and a “top concern.”

In 2004, he said, Lebanon County had 34 fire departments, nine ambulance services and 17 municipal police departments. As of 2024, the county has 27 fire departments, six ambulance services and 11 municipal police departments.

While he said first responders are reliant on mutual aid and noted that public safety is “fragile,” Dowd also said Lebanon County’s EMS is “robust” and when a 911 call is made, rescue personnel respond to that need.

Dowd stated that regionalized or county-level and paid emergency services will be the path forward, adding that combined services means less overhead in an industry where a single piece of new apparatus can cost up to $1.5 million. 

Dowd listed a number of initiatives for the path forward, and said advocacy for policy and legislative change is a critical component.

Following the meeting, state Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48) told LebTown he was interested in Dowd’s comments and planned to meet with him to discuss legislative measures concerning emergency services.  

Wolgemuth gave a county overview and highlighted farmland preservation during his presentation. He said the county has preserved over 20,747 acres since the program was founded and that Lebanon County is ranked eighth overall in the number of acres preserved in perpetuity in Pennsylvania.

A record number of farms are set to be preserved in 2024, it was announced, thanks to a donation from the Esther Martin estate.

He called the landowners who have donated land without receiving any compensation “real heroes,” noting that their easements were worth $23 million.

About 10 percent of the land in Lebanon County has been entered into the farmland preservation program since the state founded the program in 1988 and the first easement was purchased in December of 1989, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s website.

To date, 6,200+ farms statewide have been approved for easement purchases totally 630,000+ acres.

Two other presenters were Julia Vicente, superintendent for ELCO School District, who discussed the changing face of education, and Jennifer Kuzo, president of Visit Lebanon Valley, who highlighted that industry in Lebanon County. 

Kuzo said Lebanon County tourism earned $296.4 million in 2022 in visitor spending with the hotel tax helping to fund the Lebanon Valley Expo Center, the county’s hotel tax grant program and marketing efforts by Visit Lebanon Valley. 

Read More: State study shows tourism in Lebanon County rebounded in 2022

She said targeted markets for tourism include New York, New Jersey and, new this year, Baltimore. She also highlighted agritourism and ecotourism as two major draws given Lebanon County’s rural beauty, especially for urban residents. 

Both Kuzo and Wolgemuth highlighted various county assets, including the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail. (Gray had noted earlier that access to trails is one of three amenities people seek when choosing where to live.)  

Wolgemuth said 20 miles of the 25.7 miles, or 80 percent, of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail has been completed. He praised John Wengert and his dedication over the past 25 years to make the LVRT a reality. The LVRT is tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2027.

Read More: Lebanon Valley Rail Trail set for completion in 2027

The second annual State of Lebanon County program was sponsored by the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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