Chesco businesses: County is great, except for the traffic

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Discussing the results of the “Pulse” business survey are MaryFrances McGarrity, senior vice president of business development services with the Chester County Economic Development Council, and Mike Grigalonis, the council’s chief operating officer and executive vice president.

Doing business in Chester County couldn’t be better, except for the traffic, according to a new survey of businesses there.

Overwhelmingly, the survey found, business owners like Chester County: They’re optimistic about their prospects and believe the business climate is improving.They like the quality of life, the natural environment, the quality of the education system, and the safety of the community and local events. They believe, for the most part, that they can attract the talent they need, and that there is sufficient availability of land, capital, raw materials, and customers.

The downside? Businesses responding said they were only slightly bothered by a handful of negatives: the lack of public transportation, congestion on the highways, the permitting process, the cost of land, housing affordability, and local tax policies and structures.

Taking the “pulse” of Chester County businesses was the aim of the survey with the same name, whose results were released Tuesday. The survey was conducted in March and April by the Chester County Board of Commissioners and the Chester County Economic Development Council in cooperation with the county’s 10 chambers of commerce.

About 330 businesses participated in the online survey by email. Most of them, 85 percent, were small companies employing fewer than 20 people, and 55 percent were sole proprietors with fewer than five employees. One in five businesses fell in the professional-services category.

The idea behind the survey was to keep tabs on the county’s business environment to learn about the challenges facing local companies, and to identify opportunities for them.

“It reinforced something we already knew: how valuable the beauty of our landscape is and the open space,” said Mike Grigalonis, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Economic Development Council.

It’s an indicator, he said, that growth in the county has to happen in a way that preserves that asset: “I know that’s kind of a unique response from an economic-development guy, but there’s a way to do it.”

A statement accompanying the release of the survey‘s findings offered the following summary:

• Compared with 2016 findings, respondents in 2017 had a significantly more positive view of several characteristics of Chester County, including the natural environment/open space (90 percent net positive ratings, up from 76 percent); location/access to markets (86 percent, up  from 78 percent); presence of related business clusters (77 percent, up from 58 percent).

• Areas where impressions of Chester County declined compared with 2016 included
availability of workforce (63 percent net positive ratings in 2017, down from 72 percent in 2016); infrastructure (down to 39 percent, from 58 percent); roads/highways (37 percent, down from 62 percent); and permitting process/municipal approval process (down to 19 percent, from 26 percent).

Grigalonis said the report presents an early warning that workforce availability may become a growing problem. In 2016, 72 percent of respondents said they were able to find the talent they needed. In 2017, that number dropped to 63 percent.

“A small minority do struggle with workforce-related challenges,” the survey report said. Of those, one in four said that difficulty finding “qualified candidates for job openings” is a “significant issue” for their businesses.

Grigalonis said the county is monitoring the employment preferences of millennial workers. Some Chester County businesses have opened offices in Philadelphia, he said, because millennials like to live near their workplaces and prefer not to drive. “That’s something we’re keeping an eye on.”

He noted that county manufacturers and the mushroom industry report significant challenges in finding employees, but that those companies were not the main groups that responded to the survey.

About half the surveyed businesses reporting workforce challenges said the lack of access to affordable housing and public transportation affected their ability to attract and retain employees.

“People get frustrated with the lack of public transportation,” Grigalonis  said, and he’d like to see rail lines extended and more buses in the county. “But it takes time and money,” both in short supply.

As for traffic congestion, “it’s all relative,” Grigalonis said. His commute is 10 minutes on back roads. “My car never gets above 40 miles per hour.”

Yes, there are congestion and bottlenecks, he said, but commuters in Chester County have it relatively easy compared with their compatriots elsewhere in the Philadelphia region and in the nation.