Lisa Riggs is now working on economic development across Pennsylvania, but the wellbeing of Lancaster County remains very much on her mind.
This month, Riggs became senior managing director for economic growth strategy and partnerships at Team Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that brings together government and business leaders to promote statewide development and economic competitiveness.
She comes to the role after nine years as president of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County. She guided the EDC through the pandemic, during which the organization played a key role, along with the Lancaster Chamber, in developing the Recovery Lancaster business recovery plan and distributing millions of dollars in federal economic assistance to local companies.
The EDC roughly doubled in size under her tenure, and currently has 15 staff members. A replacement for Riggs has not been announced; the EDC board and executive committee are reviewing the president’s duties and how best they can be handled.
Riggs plans to remain in Lancaster County. She will commute to Harrisburg and travel to other parts of the state as needed. She’s confident it will benefit Lancaster County to have one of its own at the table in statewide economic strategy discussions.
One United Lancaster recently spoke with Riggs about her time at the EDC and how she envisions her role at Team PA. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
One United Lancaster: During your time at the EDC, what would you point to as highlights or key moments?
Lisa Riggs: When I think back, what I feel really good about in terms of where the organization is positioned for the future, it’s this focus on really understanding our local business community, focusing on retention and expansion.
That was a wholesale shift when I came on board. When I started, the question I kept getting was, “Who are you going attract to the county?” We spent two to three years, retraining the community (to realize) that the biggest growth opportunities are the companies that are already committed here.
We have so many companies that are multi-generational, right? Or they might have assets that are here. That’s where your growth comes from. They’re already the ones that employ people, that are participating in community events, that have their kids in the school systems.
That to me is the strength of a good local EDC: the depth of knowledge around the local business base, which is then supplemented with our research and analytics.
OUL: Talk a little more about that shift to retention and expansion. What does that entail?
Riggs: We have some very large businesses here. But the DNA of Lancaster County’s business base is a lot of smaller businesses. It could be someone with 10 people, it could be someone with 80 people or 200 people, right? Those are the connections that we’re building every day.
We do that by talking directly to businesses. We also deal with the banking community, the real estate community, the architectural and engineering community, the legal community — the service infrastructure that supports the businesses. Those are our core partners.
What we’ve dug into over the past nine years is deepening those relationships. I absolutely need to include municipal partners, because where we’ve probably grown the most is our relationships with the municipalities. Building those connections and having open, strong, trusted relationships, is the core of what we do.
OUL: The EDC has doubled its staff. What is it doing that it wasn’t doing before? I’m thinking probably the Center for Regional Analysis would be a good example.
Riggs: Our core business is economic development project activity: Companies staying and growing, trying to expand, looking for financing, needing some sort of community interface. That piece has been at high volume for years now. We’ve been juggling a lot of volume and needed more people to do that. So we’ve added to our finance staff.
You mentioned the Center for Regional Analysis. That is absolutely a capacity that we’ve built, having a dedicated staff person on that, along with other members of the team who are focused around analytics.
We’ve definitely added to our organizational capacity over the last two years by bringing in marketing and membership support. As we look to continue to build the relationships with the business base, we need to communicate with them effectively and be in touch with them regularly. That was becoming harder to do, and time-consuming with all the volume.
You’ve talked to us over the past couple of years on some of our special projects, things like broadband and land use. We’re still doing some of that work, but more for our internal purposes, less for broad community initiatives. Like studying land use, because we need to know how businesses are going to expand.
One United Lancaster: Places where people can go and get family sustaining jobs.
Riggs: Yes. … For us, land use ties to recognizing that the businesses that are here are employing people, and we want them to stay and grow. And recognizing that a deep and important community value is farmland preservation and conservation.
We all know the tension that exists between growth and preservation. I see it as two sides of the same coin. Can we continue to grow the community in a smart way and maintain the landscape that everyone thinks of when they think of Lancaster County? It’s not an “either-or.”
So, our focus here has been understanding how constrained the land use is, and then trying to work with our municipalities and with our real estate and land development communities to figure out how we strike the right balance.
That’s only going to get harder. So what we’ve really focused on in the last couple of years is building our knowledge base, building our internal data around being the expert as it relates to commercial and industrial land use.
The issue is not going to go away. It might ebb and flow as the economy ebbs and flows. We still are a dominant manufacturing hub and manufacturing is an industry that provides strong family-sustaining wages. It also aligns with a lot of our education system and career pathways.
OUL: That brings up a question, which is the whole post-COVID trend of working from home, abandoning downtowns. (Lancaster-based economist) Adam Ozimek has been talking about a “ring effect,” people (with hybrid work schedules) choosing to live in places like Lancaster because they can commute to Philly once or twice week. Are you tracking that? Are you seeing these post-pandemic effects in the county?
Riggs: Well, we’re not Philadelphia. We’re not a place with 20 million square feet of office space. We have a very compact downtown. And we have offices scattered throughout the urbanized areas of the county.
I think anyone who drives on Mondays and Fridays will notice that there are fewer cars on the road. In downtown, do we still have some anchor employers who are either permanently hybrid or still doing remote work? Absolutely. So, there are certainly some effects to that, most acutely for some of our retailers and restaurants.
I think the difference is, there are many businesses that are never went remote and continue to be in person. My husband’s in a service business. They decided they function better in the office, so most of them are in the office of good part of the week. It’s a little bit more relaxed than the five-days eight-to-five that we all did, sure. But they’re not going to let their office space go. In fact, they’re expanding their lease. …
So, yes, there are impacts, but I don’t they’re going to be as dramatic as what some of the bigger office markets have seen.
OUL: Could you talk about your role at Team PA?
Riggs: It’s a really exciting time at the state. Team PA has been around for a long time. Abby Smith is the CEO there and it seems like the right place and right time for her skill set. She brings an enormous amount of passion to seeing that Pennsylvania is a competitive state.
My role is to make sure the state functions as competitively as possible in the economic development arena. Given the leadership that we’ve already seen coming out of Gov. Shapiro, his emphasis on economic development and his competitive nature, you can see that there’s really an alignment between where Team PA is and what we’re hearing out of the administration.
My sense is that there’s no shortage of ideas, opportunities and suggestions from the business community across Pennsylvania. So, part of what has to be sorted through is, what are the best ideas to support businesses within the Commonwealth, to drive innovation and investment, to position the Commonwealth to be that competitive engine. …
The areas that I expect to focus on the most are really core economic development activities. How do you retain and expand business? For the EDC, half of the portfolio is financing. But there are a whole lot of other questions and issues that businesses have.
Workforce development is a big one. Permitting is another big one. Land development. Site selection. … You can walk into a business and say, “How can we be helpful?” It might take them a second or two, and then they identify two things, five things, 10 things.
To be clear, I’m not going to be knocking on doors and answering those specific questions. The opportunity at the state level is to think, from a systems point of view, are there better or different ways that we can support the businesses who are here?
OUL: When you talk about this, there are some things that come to mind from One United Lancaster’s perspective. One would be SACA (the Spanish American Civic Association) working to regionalize its Tec Centro workforce development model. Another would be Assets, and the Reinventing Our Communities initiative. Could those sorts of initiatives feed into (Team PA’s mission)?
Riggs: In my new role at Team PA, what I hope to bring is the recognition that a lot of expertise exists at the local level. A lot of economic development and economic competitiveness is local. So, how can the state look at all these entities and deploy them even more efficiently and effectively? What could be done so that the strength that an organization like Assets brings to a community like Lancaster can be elevated? Or Tec Centro. If they’re able to (replicate) across this region, could that model be used somewhere else?
The other piece I would add is: A lot of the discussion of economic development right now is around quality of place and quality of life. Twenty years ago, it was about jobs and investment. Today, it’s about quality of place.
This gets to: Is housing affordable? Are there enough choices for housing? Are we redeveloping tired assets in a way that really leverages them for the community? Are we focused on developing the types of jobs that are forward-looking and generate family-sustaining wages? That’s where I think there’s a lot of opportunity to knit together the local fabric with the state fabric more strongly.
OUL: How much will you stay in touch with the EDC?
Riggs: I don’t know. I certainly want to continue to be as much of a resource and support as I can be, especially given everything that we’ve been through over the last couple of years. I’m as close as a text or a phone call away.