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'Vulnerable town' label not so bad?

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By Jenny Hartley

The designation of Lancaster by forbes.com as the "most vulnerable town" in the country has a certain sting to it.

But local business owners and officials have found some positive things to say about the article, an online exclusive to forbes.com, which is affiliated with the popular Forbes magazine. The article was published about a week ago, and listed Lancaster County's high unemployment rate of 12.2 percent as a contributing factor to its spot at the top of the list.

The county also has about 20 percent of residents living at or below the poverty line, and only 18.6 percent of the county's workforce has an associate degree, compared with the list average of 25 percent.

"I don't think it damages us at all," said Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. President Keith Tunnell.

The article brings to light some of the needs of the county to bring jobs here, such as the need for more speculative buildings and industrial parks, higher education and retraining for textile workers who lost their jobs when Springs Global shuttered its manufacturing plants here, Tunnell said.

Tunnell, who works to recruit industries to Lancaster County, said many executives across the country read Forbes, and may be attracted to the opportunities for labor here.

"I think it could be a good thing," he said.

At the same time, Tunnell said he knows challenges are still ahead for the county when it comes to employment.

"We didn't get here overnight and we won't get out of it overnight," he said. "It will take some time to recover from where we're at."

Businesses not daunted

Local economics haven't deterred several business owners from making a new venture on Lancaster's Main Street.

Smooth's Music, Books and Gifts and Hawk Valley Trading, which sells jewelry and other gifts, recently celebrated grand openings. Wagz and Wishes, a deli, plans to open soon downtown.

Tyler's In and Out diner is gaining in popularity for its authentic Philly cheese steak sandwiches. The county's marketing agency, See Lancaster, recently organized a monthly downtown street market to offer more shopping opportunities. The next market is Nov. 1.

Hawk Valley Trading owner Debbie Norris said she and her husband, John, lived in Vermont before moving to Lancaster about a year ago. They were attracted to the area because of its moderate climate and its people.

"The people here are very friendly," Norris said. "That's a big deal, when people are nice."

Norris had been building her jewelry inventory for years before deciding to open a store. It wasn't a tough decision to open on Main Street, she said, recalling memories of growing up in a town with a vibrant downtown.

"We thought we might be part of the solution for downtown," Norris said. "It's not like going to Wal-Mart – there's something special about the downtown feeling and shopping downtown."

The forbes.com article sounded like "gloom and doom" to Norris, but she said she believes God led her straight to Lancaster.

"We took to Lancaster like a fish to water," she said.

CORE Realty owner C.B. Mathis said he believes any publicity is good publicity and the forbes.com article gave Lancaster national exposure.

"People are moving here from all over the country," Mathis said. "The fact is, we're growing by leaps and bounds."

Mathis said everyone should come together to make something positive come out of Lancaster's designation as the country's most vulnerable town.

"Let's make this positive," he said. "Let's refute it. Let's tell America where we're really at and where we're going."

Writer talks about article

Rebecca Ruiz, the author of the article, said her intention in writing it was for something positive to come from it.

She said there's been so much talk about Main Streets across the country since the credit crisis unfolded on Wall Street that she wanted to explore it in a concrete way.

Ruiz used August unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and 2007 Census data on median income, poverty, education and outstanding mortgage debt in 141 towns. The Census refers to these towns, which have an "urban core" of at least 10,000 people, but no more than 50,000, as micropolitan areas.

Ruiz said she hopes the information in the article will be useful to the public and elected officials to discuss the conditions of the towns identified as vulnerable in the article.

"What can be done to improve the situation for everyone?" Ruiz asked. "It's not meant to be an insult. It's intended to shed some light on these towns, I hope, in a productive way."

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151