The presidential campaign revolved around Scranton. The next presidency almost certainly will not.
Politics and personality aside, the regional economy flourished under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, at least until the pandemic struck.
For different reasons, experts in economics, finance and commercial development feel optimistic that President Elect Joe Biden will bring growth for Northeast Pennsylvania. They’re split, however, on whether his presidency means favoritism for his boyhood hometown.
We should expect Biden’s policies to advance the nation’s interests, not just for one area, said Iordanis Petsas, Ph.D., a University of Scranton economist and chairman of the university’s economics and finance department.
“Joe Biden will be the president of the United States, not the president of Scranton or Northeast Pennsylvania,” he said.
Anyone who paid any attention to the election cycle knows that Biden, 78, was born at Mercy Hospital, now Regional Hospital of Scranton, and lived in the city’s Green Ridge section until age 10.
On the campaign trail, Biden stopped in Northeast Pennsylvania seven times for rallies, a town hall and a television ad video shoot. When he was here, he touted his middle class upbringing and the work ethic he learned from it.
He promised to preserve and/or advance the positions that are especially important to the region’s economy, namely union jobs and natural gas production.
Trump liked to falsely proclaim Biden would end fracking and natural gas development, but when he visited, Biden frequently denounced the accusation and instead described a measured approach, saying that green energy jobs were the distant future, but that natural gas would remain the nation’s fuel of choice, at least for another 15 to 30 years.
While Petsas warned that campaign promises should not be construed as anything more than that, others want to hold the president elect to his word.
“I would hope that he keeps his promise to be true to Northeast Pennsylvania,” said John Augustine, president of Penn’s Northeast, a collaborative funded by regional corporations to attract new commercial development and industry.
Lou Ingargiola, a financial adviser, said not for political reasons, but just the sheer attention the region received, he hopes it pays off materially with new enthusiasm.
“All eyes are on Scranton for the last two elections,” he said. “You would hope that with whatever political weight that Joe Biden or the Scranton people have, that they could direct some businesses to come here.”
Like Trump, Biden will likely pursue America-first policies, but unlike Trump, Biden’s are not “America-only.”
“The president elect wants to have this multilateral approach to work with allied countries to put pressure on China,” Petsas said.
While Trump, who frequently flaunted himself as a great negotiator, flew solo campaigns, most notably tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods, to level for trade parity.
He eschewed the trade arrangements that most of the world supports, for example the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the World Trade Organization. Biden would likely, and quickly, restart conversations to resume U.S. involvement.
More specifically, it’s a “given” that Biden will fully fund the U.S. Agency for International Development, appoint judges to the WTO’s dispute panel and begin “multilateral/multiparty efforts to address regional and global problems, and seeking consensus with our allies,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow George Ingram wrote in a Nov. 9 analysis.
Biden will not look to be a punitive trading partner, and likely will lift tariffs levied against European Union countries, Petsas said. Those placed against China, however, will be more difficult to erase, so our trade agreements with the world’s biggest exporter must be renegotiated.
But what about NEPA?
Many of Northeast Pennsylvania’s companies operate in global markets, but the region also has a very specific economic landscape and demographics.
It saw an explosion of growth over the last decade, particularly in warehousing and distribution. Before the pandemic struck, unemployment hit record low levels – 4.9% in April and May 2018.
Most recent preliminary figures show unemployment rebounded from the highs the pandemic triggered, but it was still at 9.4% in September.
While national politics have their own effect on the regional economy, market trends and long-running trajectories are far more important. Consumer trends in retail, toward online shopping, and the pandemic’s office building cleanout are bigger concerns than the president’s policies.
“I don’t really see the office market coming back the way that it was, nor do I see traditional retail coming back the way that it was,” Augustine said.
That said, the warehousing market remains strong, and manufacturing – a holy grail of sorts among economic development experts – is making a big return.
Just this year, separate aluminum can manufacturers announced plans to build factories, notably on the sites of extinct manufacturing icons. The Polish company Canpack is building a factory on the former Cinram site in Olyphant. Ball Corp. announced plans to build a factory in Jenkins Twp. Both promise hundreds of good-paying jobs.
No president can take away one of the region’s most important assets, inexpensive real estate that’s within a day’s drive to the nation’s largest markets.
For those reasons, Augustine said a drawn-out, pandemic-related retraction is really the biggest threat to growth.
“I’m very bullish on the economy of Northeastern Pennsylvania,” he said. “I would hope that January brings, from a health perspective, a much healthier 2021.”