LAKE REGION - Members of the Pocono Lake Region Chamber of Commerce assembled at Gresham’s Chop House April 14 for the organization’s 88th annual and final membership meeting, where there was plenty of laughter, conversation and information regarding economic development.
    Executive Director Debbie Gillette and Executive Assistant Maureen Bunting gave the final Lake Region President Jim Shook, a bag of gag gifts to laugh at some of the fun he had during his presidency. Shook called the evening “bittersweet,” as it was the “end of an era,” since it was the Chamber's last annual cocktail party as the Pocono Lake Region Chamber. Later this year the Chamber is expected to finalize a merger with the Wayne County Chamber in Honesdale and the Southern Wayne Regional Chamber in Hamlin. The merger, Shook said is tough, but because the directors are focused on the membership it will work out.
    As the leaving president, Shook said his tenure was “extremely enjoyable and educational.” On the same note though, he added that its time for his term to be finished. Working with the Board, Shook said made his presidency special because it was a, “phenomenal Board.” Now, with Dr. Lorraine Kloss as president, he said everyone will be fine, in part because of her experience.
    Present at the meeting was Senator Lisa Baker with guest speakers Kathy Hummel who represented Pike County Economic Development Authority and Wayne County Commissioners Brian Smith and Jonathan Fritz.
    Hummel, who is also a Board member, reported that Pike County has an unemployment rate of about 7.4 percent, which she said is less now than it was a month ago. But, that rate, she said is actually much higher than the state unemployment rate. Of the population in Pike County, Hummel said 52 percent travel out of the county for employment. That is problematic, she said because it affects a loss in purchasing dollars, sales tax, time spent with families and lost talent.
    With the region's main industries being tourism and home construction, Hummel said it is “flat,” right now. She explained that in 2004 there were 1,253 permits issued and within the first 11 months of 2013 there were only 63. The dropping numbers, she said are why economic development is needed in Pike County. Trying to form partnerships with area businesses, she said could help to “diversify our business.”
    Looking to bring in more businesses, Hummel said is a challenge because there is little infrastructure for businesses in Pike County. Currently, she said Pike County is offering the tax abatement program, “Turda.” The program is a “win, win for any township” because people don't lose money, instead there is a better chance to make money. With new businesses opening and creating jobs, Hummel said “exciting things are going on in Pike.”  
    Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan Fritz said Wayne and Pike Counties have the lowest taxes in the five county region, with Western Wayne, Wallenpaupck and Wayne Highlands ranking lowest at 25 percent in cost. Fritz said there are “some really wonderful developments coming down to Pike,” with “trends on the horizon and they're coming out of us.”  
    Wayne County Commissioner Chairman Brain Smith said, “economic development is crucial for the future of Wayne County.” Looking at state statistics, Smith said Wayne County is 60th in growth, which he called, “negative growth” because there are less people since subdivisions have “flat-lined.”  
Since people aren't moving to the region like they were following Sept. 11 (2001), Smith said it is, “problematic for the economics of the county.”
     Within a five county area, he said the region has some of the lowest taxes in the state. Looking at initiatives for economic development, Smith spoke about the creation of internal revenue sources that help offset costs, like having less health expenditures and the county being self-insured. With offset costs, Smith said that keeps costs down for taxpayers. One initiative, “Wayne Tomorrow,” he said was started as a way to stop people from “fighting opportunity that comes to our area.”
      When industry comes and people are frightened, Smith said it is, “so frustrating,” and it “doesn't make sense.” He noted how there was industry in the region in the 1800's with the D & H Canal. But if the canal was operating now, it would be problematic because people would fight against it for fear that the water quality would be affected. But, he noted, that even though the canal ran for years, the water wasn't ruined “because we're still here today.” Instead, he said the canal helped to industrialize the country. The industry, Smith added, “made this nation strong, made us a superpower” because of the infrastructure and energy. Those things, he added are still needed today.
    Initiatives like Wayne Tomorrow, Smith said is an attempt to educate people who have differences of opinion about what is needed and the importance of protecting the environment. Working together and moving past “our fundamental differences of the environment,” Smith said there are projects being worked on. With reforestation underway, and “economic engines,” like Lake Wallenpaupack which Smith noted is not polluted, people should be aware of the facts and “talk about a balance with industry in our environment.”  For anyone who would like to be involved in Wayne Tomorrow, Smith said they can be and if someone has a good idea, they should “bring it forward.”   
    The newest Pocono Lake Region Chamber President Dr. Lorraine Kloss gave the evening's closing remarks, where she said with the chamber's successful past, the future will be good as accomplishments have been made because of “teamwork, collaboration, cooperation and community support.”