In recent years, businesses and mega-corporations have been flocking to Western Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for our city, as well as the county, these companies have flocked to almost every city nearby but New Castle – why?
Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as you might think it is. In fact, it is a wide variety of issues within the City of New Castle that makes the city appear more distressed than it actually is. If you read the news in New Castle, you have likely heard of Act 47, or the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act. New Castle was first designated as a distressed municipality in January 2007, which was likely a good time for the city to enter this status. A July 2019 article from the New Castle News states that prior to being in state oversight, the city accumulated $4 million in debt, and was at risk to run out of cash later that year. That same year is the year that the infamous Great Recession of 2007 began, as well as a few months after the decline of housing prices across the city.
In the aforementioned article, statistics were given that is very alarming to major investors. It mentions that only 36% of New Castle’s potential workers are employed and 3% are unemployed, while 61% have dropped out of the labor pool. Compared to employment rates in both the state and the county, these are significantly low, being 46% employed in the county and 48% employed in the state. Now, this may just seem like a number, but let me put it into perspective. New Castle has an estimated population of 21,797 as of 2018 census estimates. If you take that twelve percent difference between the state employment rate and the city’s employment rate, that accounts for over 2,600 people. That is a lot of people that could be potential employees for companies!
It also states how much crime there was in the city. In 2017 there were 826 violent crimes and 1,373 property crimes, which is a significantly higher rate than in the rest of the county. Statistics like this drastically hurt the chance of a new business coming to New Castle.
How We Can Attract Businesses
One of the best ways to lower crime rates and improve employment rates is to attract businesses, obviously. This, however, is what New Castle has been struggling with. Some cities have implemented proven methods to reduce crime rates. One 2010 study posted in the American Journal of Public Health proved that a raised alcohol tax decreased crime by 1.4%, among other unrelated decreases. Another important thing New Castle needs to decrease is blight. A 2015 study from the Urban Health Lab found that reducing blight overall reduced the rates of all crimes, and there was no visible evidence that the crime moved to other areas.
I also found is that new and revitalized road corridors help boost the economy. Nearby, many cities have been doing this including Sharon, Monaca, and Beaver Falls. The two most popular methods introduced recently are roundabouts and ‘road diets’, meaning to make a road have fewer lanes in order to add parking, bicycle lanes, and wider sidewalks with green spaces. Route 18 in Beaver Falls is getting one of these road diets, going from 4 lanes with parking to 2 lanes and a center lane with parking, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. Route 18 through Downtown New Castle is the perfect candidate for one of these road diets, supporting 8,100 vehicles a day compared to Beaver Falls’ 10,000 vehicles a day. While bike lanes in New Castle are likely obsolete, Route 18 as a whole doesn’t have any on-street parking, which could eliminate the need for off-street parking lots.
I previously mentioned in my article How to Recreate Downtown New Castle that one of the greatest things Downtown New Castle can do to both reduce blight and attract businesses is to tear down the Cascade Galleria downtown and reestablish a street grid in that area. A similar, yet much larger scale project has been in the works in Pittsburgh on the former site of the Civic Arena. The billion-dollar project will feature nearly 1,500 housing units, over 800,000 square feet of office space, nearly 200,000 square feet of retail, a music venue, a dining hall, and a hotel. Also adjacent to it is a park being built on top of Interstate 579, reconnecting the Hill District with Downtown Pittsburgh.
A project like this can easily be done on the site of the Cascade Galleria – if the city finds a way to attract these investors. Once the property is purchased and a street grid is set up, the city can easily attract investors by selling parcels of land for next to nothing – on the condition that they begin construction on a medium-rise building within two years and a completed building within six years. There also would have to be tax incentives to really drive development.
New Businesses Are Still Coming
Of course, New Castle has been attracting new businesses – just not as many as it is losing. In October, the PennPower building on the corner of East Washington and Jefferson Streets at Kennedy Square has been sold to an investor. ServaxNet LLC, a Dallas based data storage company, announced that they have purchased the former PennPower building on the corner of Washington and Jefferson Streets in Downtown New Castle. The company plans to renovate the building and have it operational sometime in 2020. The CEO of ServaxNet LLC, Dennis Liang, stated that New Castle was a “top choice” for an east coast location and that they “look forward to making a positive impact on the community”. The company currently has data centers in Las Vegas and Dallas.
The building was purchased on October 11th for $85,000. It was first built in the 1960s and has sat empty for 16 years, ever since PennPower relocated its headquarters to Akron. According to the New Castle News, the building currently stores New Castle’s downtown holiday decorations. The news also said that it was proposed in 2015 to construct 23 apartments in the building for affordable veterans’ housing. The building also has recently been used for search and rescue dog training.
There are other projects expected to take place in the coming months in Downtown New Castle. The most significant project that will take place is the demolition of the former FirstMerit building on Mill Street. It was supposed to be torn down in October, but due to the potential dangers of demolishing a building next to the skating rink, it has been postponed until January. It is going to be turned into additional parking for the Washington Center across the street, which I highly oppose considering there is adequate parking located right behind the building in the parking garage. It would be a much better investment for both the city and the developer to attempt to sell the land the building is located on to a developer that will commit to building a new, mid-rise office building.
In my opinion, I see this as a huge leap in the right direction for Downtown New Castle’s future. This is possibly the first modern technology company to choose New Castle as one of its locations, and it just might begin attracting other companies. Eventually, New Castle could become the headquarters to large startup companies due to its very affordable housing and huge potential. Large, multi-billion dollar companies could also become interested in investing in New Castle’s real estate market. Hopefully, this project can attract developers who will be looking forward to making New Castle a better place.
Businesses Downtown New Castle Lacks
Half of the reason Downtown New Castle is lacking so many small businesses is due to the fact that there is little infrastructure to support it. If you take a look at the major and even minor urban centers of the countries, you will notice that all new buildings are considered ‘mixed-use’, meaning that they are zoned to support both residential and commercial space. These buildings usually contain apartments, offices, or hotel rooms on the upper floors, and restaurants or retail space on the lower floors.
The biggest thing I feel Downtown New Castle is missing is chain retailers. Something as simple as an urban-style Target or Trader Joe’s has the potential to completely transform New Castle as a whole. Restaurants such as Starbucks and Panera Bread could become attracted if more “upper-scale” chains come to town. Those who are involved with large real-estate firms that are involved with these large chains could fall in love with the small-town vibe of New Castle and sell more land to real estate investors. This could eventually create a small urban core in New Castle and eventually attract small businesses to Downtown.
Small businesses are one of the largest assets in a small urban core that New Castle lacks. Other than a few restaurants and coffee shops, Downtown New Castle does not have many small businesses. One of the most popular ‘new’ style restaurants are urban bistros and ‘kitchen and bar’-type restaurants. These modern-style restaurants are prevalent across the country, with their “gourmet”-style menus at relatively inexpensive prices.
We Can Attract Businesses
I purposefully worded this as “we can attract businesses”. Without support and pushing by the people to create these businesses, they won’t come to town. If these businesses, both small and chains, see that we are interested in their company coming to town, they most certainly will see it as an opportunity. This means that we can’t just sit around and complain about the lack of businesses, as well as well-paying jobs in New Castle, we must push our leaders to reach out to these companies.
I believe our mayor-elect is willing to reach out to these companies to build in New Castle and I look forward to seeing New Castle become the thriving city it once was.