HALIFAX, Pa. (WHTM) — People who live in northern Dauphin County will tell you it’s a great place to live. The harder sell is convincing people it’s a good place to do business.
“This is not that far out,” said Melissa Stone, Vice President of Economic Development for the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC. “Just like crossing the river is not going to another country, coming over Peter’s Mountain is not going to another country to go into another marketplace.”
On Thursday, Stone’s agency along with members of the Northern Dauphin Regional Chamber of Commerce and others held a business services fair at Halifax Area High School. The goal was to spread the word about resources, many of which are completely free, available to entrepreneurs seeking to launch a business. Resources include assistance with writing a business plan, applying for a loan, and sifting through the red tape of local government.
Northern Dauphin is no stranger to business. While towns like Halifax, Millersburg and Elizabethville are perceived as rural, residents like to consider them slightly distant suburbs of Harrisburg, where most people commute daily to work. Regional and national retailers such as Walmart, McDonald’s, Auto Zone, Dunkin Donuts, Dollar General, CVS, Giant Foods, Weis Markets and Sheetz have been long established in the area. Small private businesses including metal and plastic fabricators, archery and gun shops, restaurants and even an FM radio station have thrived in the region for decades.
At the same time, there are ghosts of businesses past. In Halifax, the building that housed the recently replaced Sheetz store along Route 147 now sits vacant alongside another dark and empty lot that used to be home to a restaurant and miniature golf course. A few miles south, a 12.5-acre lot that was once the Engle-Rissinger Auto Group has been vacant since the car industry collapse and federal bailout deal forced Ford and Chrysler to close hundreds of dealerships in 2009-2010. Upon entering Millersburg, passing drivers will see the weeds that have grown through the asphalt parking lot of the gutted former Hardee’s.
While Stone admits it could be a challenge to convince more national retailers to breathe new life into those dated structures, they could be perfect for a local business owner looking for somewhere to start or expand.
“Small business is the heart,” she said. “Up here, you have the ability to focus on more local markets, work your neighborhoods. Its really up to the people who live here to decide what types of business they would like to support.”
According to a flyer advertising an upcoming real estate auction at the former Engle-Rissinger property on Nov. 10, potential uses for the land facility include a farmer’s marker, greenhouses, retail and trucking.
“I think we have a solid employable population here,” said Jim Lee of Fisherville, who was grabbing a bite to eat at the McDonald’s in Halifax. “But I don’t think the shoe factory is coming back,” he added, referring to the former Willits Shoe Company which left Halifax several years ago. “I’d like to see some kind of manufacturing that has substance to it. A livable wage, certainly.”
“It would be nice to have some clothing stores up here so there wasn’t a necessary trip to Harrisburg,” said Dana Stottlemyer of Halifax, shopping at the Giant Food Store. “We need something with more selection than Walmart in Elizabethville. We all work in Harrisburg, so we shop there, too. But it’s a little more laid back here on the weekend, and it would be nice not to have to go to Harrisburg. I think we have the population to support that. A bookstore would be nice, with a coffee shop. People have tried that before, but never really put it all together.”
Despite a public interest in new businesses, roadblocks remain. In what can be described as an identity crisis conflict, some residents believe a business boom could destroy the area’s signature rural charm, bringing more traffic congestion, road construction and light pollution. Others welcome as many new businesses as possible, believing it will expand the local tax base for the regional school districts, including Halifax Area and Millersburg, which debated property tax increases and painful program cuts in their most recent budgets.
According to Stone, the same resources are available to potential business owners in northern Dauphin County, as are available in more densely populated urban areas.
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC serves all of Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties. The Northern Dauphin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Dauphin County Department of Economic Development and state Representative Sue Helm’s office can also provide information and support to existing business owners and entrepreneurs.