It seems that we have come to a point where we are much more enamored by regulation than the projects we hope to produce. It is more and more obvious that we have created a bureaucracy that is now driving away opportunity from Pike County (and elsewhere). In the last several months, the Pike County Economic Development Authority has lost a number of meaningful projects because of the complexity, expense and, above all, the amount of time it takes to get new building projects approved. In these projects, we lost tax income, general commerce and putting literally hundreds of well-paying jobs in our communities.
First and foremost, before anyone says “He just wants to build projects without looking at the impact those projects will bring” I want to say that is completely false. The Pike County Economic Development Authority is in FAVOR of vigorous review and high standards for all projects. What we are only discussing here is the harm done by a process that has become too bureaucratic and Byzantine.
It is common for a project to spend at least 12 months (or more) awaiting approvals from various regulatory agencies. Add to that, another nine to12 months for construction (or more). Now imagine, if you were an investor in a project and someone told you it would take two years (or substantially more) before you were to get any return on your investment. People always ask where are the supermarket and three other retail stores on Route 739 that has been waiting for approvals for two years. Construction has yet to begin and that could take another year (or more) before construction could be completed (depending on the season the approvals are granted). Imagine if someone told you it would cost thousands of dollars to go through a process that might be prolonged for an undetermined amount of time and even denied at the end. I think that one could readily understand the reasons why investors would be hesitant to put money into something so uncertain.
A small business owner who is a friend told me of getting approvals for a small extension and some cement work that took almost 2 1/2 years. I know there are many similar stories. If you ask a regulator (I often ask if a year or more is too long to wait for an approval to be adjudicated) he would likely shrug his shoulders and say, “that’s how long it takes.” He does not see the irony that getting an approval is making something we should all cheer, less likely to happen. His focus is not on new jobs, new taxes, new income and commerce. It is hard to contemplate the idea of such a simple application taking two and one-half years. What could be so complex as a 20-foot extension on an existing building and why hold up a small business from growing?
Recently an owner that wanted to build a 100,000 sf computer-based fulfillment house said: “We have decided not to move forward, since we have to move within the next 12 to 18 months and this area people are moving too slow for us to accomplish it, thanks for your help.” Another said that he cannot wait for approvals inasmuch as they are limited by a 6-month deadline for a “1031 Exchange.” Another, who is still active, is receiving funding from private investors and they “will not wait for approvals and the construction period which could take years.” That project is seeking an existing building (so it can avoid the usual approval process) anywhere it can find one; inside or OUTSIDE of Pike County. Together, these three desirable businesses would have produced 200 local jobs.
There is an administrative remedy that we have suggested to Governor Wolf and other elected officials and we think it can speed up the approvals dramatically. It involves the use of Pennsylvania private engineering firms to act under the aegis of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or the Department of Transportation, among others. There are precedents for this since already private engineering firms are used to inspect Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges. We would propose that the state train and designate private engineering firms to act as agents of the various departments involved in the approval process. Applicants would have to pay to have quick reviews done by the designated engineering firms but they would be able to get reviews done much quicker. This would generate net new revenues to the state, lessen the demands on existing state employees and create many new private sector jobs in Pennsylvania.
The Pike County Economic Development Authority is also keen on the idea of “Shovel Ready” sites whereby local and state authorities grant generic approval on proposed sites that fully complies with local zoning and state regulations. This program makes land more valuable and MUCH more likely to sell. Further, it still leaves all prerogatives in the hands of the local municipalities and officials.
In the end, no approval process should take years and be cost prohibitive. It is time we decide that regulation is not an end in itself; ultimately, it is the project that benefits us. We need to rethink our process and our goals and identify that over-regulation and long delays for approvals are hurting our communities in a most profound way.
Michael J. Sullivan is Executive Director, Pike County Economic Development Authority, 209 East Harford St., Milford, PA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 570-296-7332. Visit online at www.edapikepa.org.