Senators Schwank, Blake team up to help struggling Pa. cities

Sen. Judy Schwank

To improve performance and brighten the economic future for more of Pennsylvania’s struggling cities, state Sens. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and John Blake (D-Lackawanna) introduced legislation on Wednesday, Jan. 15, to expand a new program designed to drive significant economic development and bring people back to cities.

The City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program became law last summer when a more limited version of the proposal was incorporated into the commonwealth’s tax code.

Forty-five of the state’s 53 third-class cities, including Scranton and Harrisburg, were immediately precluded from consideration under that version. Reading was one of eight cities that remained eligible for the program but was shut out of participation after the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development selected Lancaster and Bethlehem for inaugural CRIZ involvement.

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“We are happy that Lancaster and Bethlehem were selected and are on their way to reaping the benefits of the CRIZ program. However, there are too many cities like Scranton, Reading and Erie that need and can use this, and they should have that ability now,” Schwank said during a Capitol Rotunda press conference.

Blake called the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program a “critical tool” that cities need to stir strong community revitalization and spark significant economic development.

“The state must be a better partner with our cities in fostering investment, stabilizing our local tax bases, and sparking economic growth and infrastructure investment. The CRIZ program can serve to revitalize Scranton, Reading and our other small cities without adverse impact on the state General Fund,” Blake said.

Under their proposal, DCED would award 15 City Revitalization and Improvement Zones between now and 2016. Bethlehem and Lancaster would be included in that total but spots would open for other communities based on population and other criteria.

After 2016, the state would add two cities every year to CRIZ, regardless of population. This is the current requirement under state law.

There would also be five pilot programs for boroughs and townships of at least 7,000 people, compared to just one under the current language. Additionally, Act 47 communities would receive priority status if they applied for CRIZ participation.

The CRIZ program was modeled after a Neighborhood Improvement Zone initiative that has proven to be an economic development marvel in downtown Allentown.

“Giving more cities the power of a CRIZ designation will bring new investment in local economies because it will target the problems that caused their financial suffering and eliminated the features that once made them vibrant,” Blake said. “CRIZ will redevelop eligible vacant, blighted and abandoned properties into commercial, exhibition, hospitality, conference, retail community or other mixed-use purpose facilities that residents will be proud of for years to come.”

“Reading, Scranton and other cities will still have to step up to the plate to qualify for CRIZ designations if this bill is adopted,” Schwank said. “Hopefully, we will give them that opportunity in time to help them.”

Properly managed, the senators said City Revitalization and Improvement Zones will not burden the commonwealth’s budget.

From the Senate of Pennsylvania.