This originally appeared in the Reading Eagle’s Business Weekly Issue from 1/2/18.
By Lisa Scheid:
A native of Lobachsville, Deb Heffner’s journey from a small-business owner to an economic development professional was a long one. A sort of perfect storm of experience and ambition led her to a top spot at the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance.
Business Weekly: What are the challenges in making Berks County or selling Berks County?
Deb Heffner: You know, it’s the perception that some people have regarding the City of Reading. It really disheartens me when I hear people who are from this area say, almost like a badge of honor, “I don’t go into the city.” And I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me because you’re missing out on so much.” You know, I work here and I’ve never had any sort of issues and I’m saying to them, “You’re missing ice hockey games, you’re missing concerts.” I always say to them, “I can’t believe you didn’t come in for so-and-so’s concert,” or “You can come in to see Elton John, or “You didn’t come for any genre of music?” There’s excellent restaurants; there’s these different events that go on like Fire & Ice. All kinds of things, even the Shop Small Business Saturday, which we just hosted. People are missing out on so much by saying that they’re not going to come into the city. So, that’s one of the biggest challenges, just getting people to open their minds as to why it’s here and what they can enjoy.
BW: Where are the sites that you think have business potential that people are missing?
DH: There are certainly a lot of opportunities along the Penn Street corridor here in downtown Reading, and we’re seeing some of that redevelopment starting to happen up in the 500 block and I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along. So, it’s a great place for small companies to come in and have a footprint and be part of the change that’s occurring within the City of Reading, that positive change that’s happening. Also a great location for a large business that wants to come in and really kind of put their stamp on downtown Reading. There’s companies out there (whose) culture fits well in a downtown location and we have areas here that can house them. We have industrial areas. One of the issues is sometimes the industrial areas might have some extra challenges that go with them.
BW: Such as?
DH: Such as it might be a brownfield where something needs to be cleaned up from a past resident so to speak or, if it’s a historical building, some of the things that go with keeping that historical. Again, for a company whose culture fits in that kind of city setting, and they like that bricks type of appeal, old beams, etc., it makes a great work location. When you look at some of the stuff that’s been done down on Canal Street, how some of those buildings have been revamped. Workforce is continuing to be a challenge as the silver tsunami is coming (all of us baby boomers, we’re getting close to retirement). That workforce challenge continues to be an issue companies need to look at. For some companies that culture of being kind of an older kind of edgy type of building is a really good fit so I think there’s opportunities there. There’s certainly opportunities for industrial down at the Riverview site (Northwest Reading) and we’re certainly hoping to see a company that wants to expand there or a new company that’s looking to relocate.
BW: Do you see anything in the pipeline? I guess you can’t talk about specifics.
DH: We have had a very strong pipeline the last few years and, yes, I cannot give details. A lot of times we have confidentiality agreements with the companies. We had a strong pipeline of companies looking at us and we’ve had a strong pipeline of existing Berks County companies who are needing to expand and looking for support to do that. They are looking for a new place to do that because maybe they are landlocked where they are right now. But the challenge for us in Berks County, up to just even a few months ago, has been that we love our green space in Berks County. We have quite a bit of land that is under agriculture preservation, so as a result we don’t have open expanses of land for industrial development. That is something that we’ve been working toward educating developers about the opportunities that do exist here. Typically I’m talking about smaller – there’s no thousand-acre industrial park but there’s a couple hundred for that 50- to 250-acre park. (Business or industrial) parks can happen in different segments of the county and we now have developers who are working on bringing over 7 million square feet of industrial space on line within the next year to two years.
A large part of my job is working with our existing companies, primarily our existing manufacturers. Right now I’m working with 18 different manufacturing companies who need to expand. Eleven of those do not have the ability to expand where they currently are. When I look at the needs of just those 11 companies we need a half a million square feet to fit their needs.
BW: It seemed for a long time there was a lot of looking outside the county to bring businesses in and it seems like now there’s more of a focus on bringing people up. Is that just my perception?
DH: We started in 2013 focusing on our existing companies. So we still do that attraction side because you need to be engaged in that process because you do need a certain number of new jobs to come into the market, a new company to come in the market to continue to sustain and grow your economy. However, just as important if not more important than that attraction side, is helping your existing companies to continue to be healthy and to have the ability to grow. So in 2013 we started a local business outreach program, which I’m the director of business outreach for that. We visited with over 240 companies. The impact from that local business outreach program up to now is we’ve seen over 3,700 new or retained jobs and those jobs equate to over $109 million annually in wages. So that is a significant impact. We’re seeing things from those companies such as business-to-business referrals. We had over 100 referrals that we made, including to local banks for somebody who needed lending or some sort of investment specialist. Because workforce continues to be the No. 1 thing that is keeping our companies up at night, we’ve made over 70 referrals to groups such as our (Berks County) CareerLink who can provide employment recruitment assistance and some grant funding. Our Berks Career & Technology Center and Reading-Muhlenberg Technology Center also are tremendous assets. Also, we’re very blessed right across the street here to have the Reading Area Community College’s Schmidt Training and Technology Center. That’s someone we refer to quite frequently.
In addition, we’ve done almost 30 referrals to groups such as Greater Berks Development Fund, which has access to the state’s funding for expansions or machinery and equipment that companies need. (We refer to) our Community First Fund for those smaller businesses that need financing and (we refer to) our local banks. We’ve done 11 referrals for exporting assistance, which we’re blessed in Pennsylvania to have 22 international reps who cover the globe. Those reps can help existing Berks companies to enter a new market or vet out potential customers there. In fact, between 2015 and 2016, Berks County’s exporting increased by over $30 million. So we have seen a bump in a small to medium size companies who just thought they really could not ever export because it seems like this very big complex item. They just could not get their heads wrapped around how would I ever export to India, how would I export to South America. We have reps who can help them do just that and can walk them through it in and make it something that they can manage.
BW: Some of the big companies that do exporting would be Carpenter and East Penn
DH: And Sweet Streets. They do some exporting. I just met last week with a two-person manufacturing company that exports all over the world. That’s an interesting one because we were able to connect them with our world trade center and with those export partners. It’s funny because they were two-person company and most people are daunted even if they have 100 or 200 employees.
BW: Tell us about your new position with Industrial Asset Management Council.
DH: The Industrial Asset Management Council was formed in 2002 and they’re a 600-plus member organization. They are the leading trade association for corporate real estate executives who are focused on an industrial portfolio. They have training for those individuals. They have a couple of conferences a year where people can come together and learn how to manage industrial portfolios. These are people who are managing portfolios not just in the U.S. but a lot of them have global portfolios. I became a member of that organization 10 years ago and obtained training. I got their fellows designation in 2013. They asked me to chair their marketing committee. Then, about six months ago, they approached me about coming onto their board, which is very prestigious for an economic developer to sit on their board because it’s mainly comprised of corporate real estate professionals who are managing those industrial portfolios. There will be myself and one other economic developer on that board.
BW: How long is your term?
DH: It’s a three-year term.
BW: Does this elevate Reading’s (profile)?
DH: It absolutely does. It elevates Pennsylvania. It elevates greater Reading because I’m seen as having a leadership role in this organization and people know that I’m there representing greater Reading, and representing Pennsylvania. What we’re going to get is an elevated exposure. Could it lead to something down the line? It absolutely could. We already have some Berks County companies who are involved at IMC. We have Penske (Truck Rental) and Bimbo (Bakeries). They have their real estate professionals that are involved in that organization. Then we have some outliers: We have Air Products and we have NFU Industries and Pepsi Cola, Thermo Fisher and Johnson & Johnson. So we have some companies that are from right outside of our area but still in Pennsylvania who are very involved and active in the organization. I’m excited about getting to serve on this board and help guide them through their next transition as they continue to morph as an organization.