Article featured on LancasterOnline.  Photo courtesy of Richard Hertzler/LNP.

With employers hiring, retail centers springing up, the housing market chugging along and many workers getting raises, Lancaster County’s usually resilient economy seems to be doing just fine.

But tomorrow could be a different story, particularly if business and government leaders here make decisions based on incomplete or misguided economic forecasts.

Because good information matters, the nonprofit Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County has launched its Center for Regional Analysis to tailor economic research to Lancaster’s needs.

And after a national search, EDC has hired economist Naomi Young to lead the initiative.

“I’m excited,” said Young, 45, who as the center’s director will supervise two researchers. “In talking to business leaders during the interview process, what I was struck by was the earnest desire to have good economic analysis.

“If we can make this work in Lancaster, it can be a model for many communities,” said Young, who was a senior research economist with the Environmental Finance Center based at the University of Maryland.

Why did Young get the job?

Lisa Riggs, EDC president, said Young, with dual master’s degrees in economics and public policy and management, has the technical know-how, start-up experience and people skills the center needs to get up and running.

“There’s an orientation that she has as a trained economist that’s very different than the planning discipline, than the economic development discipline, than municipal leadership discipline,” Riggs said. “So this is meant to be complementary … while being very ambitious, because we have a lot of tough challenges in this community.”

The Steinman Foundation and the BB&T Economic Growth Fund each committed $1 million to the new center. The Steinman Foundation is a local, independent family foundation funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group.

“The EDC is fortunate to have attracted a person with the breadth of experience and expertise of Naomi Young to serve as its inaugural director,” said Robert M. Krasne, chief executive officer of Steinman Communications and EDC vice chair. “Her enthusiasm for the center’s mission combined with her intellectual curiosity and communications skills will ensure that the center will have a profound and immediate impact on Lancaster County.”

The following interview with Young has been edited for length and clarity.

Why does Lancaster County need a Center for Regional Analysis?

The economy is complex, and finding good information is time consuming. So often we end up making business decisions thinking what we did yesterday, we should do tomorrow.

In an environment with lots of uncertainty, that kind of random walk is probably not the best way to make decisions.

CRA’s success will be based on how well we produce information that’s respected and integrated into decision processes.

What will the center offer that Lancaster doesn’t already have?

For communities the size of Lancaster County, it’s difficult to find resources to create a place like the Center for Regional Analysis. They tend to rely on universities and consulting firms, many of which are not local. The information tends to be ad hoc or very targeted.

So starting a center like CRA gives Lancaster the opportunity to collect data and develop forecasts that reflect a deep understanding of Lancaster’s economic fabric and builds on the region’s institutional knowledge.

What kinds of economic decisions will be improved?

Decisions about expansion, relocation, attraction and retention of businesses. Do you have the infrastructure for sustained growth? Do you have the customer base?

Will your work make Lancaster County more competitive?

One of our aims is to benchmark Lancaster relative to other communities that are our competitors.

If you think about what’s needed for economic vitality, we need labor, capital, infrastructure and the ability to attract entrepreneurs. Those are limited resources, and everybody is competing for them.

CRA will create information that helps Lancaster better position itself and make investments that can help it weather the economy’s volatility.

Lancaster has experts and business leaders who have immense amounts of expertise and intuition. The question is can the center bring evidence-based data that tests those insights and helps them make more timely course corrections while competing with other places fighting for the same people and resources.

Will the center help Lancaster County land new companies?

I think so. As companies look around for where to expand or relocate, they have lots of options. Being able to quickly highlight Lancaster’s competitive advantages will hopefully lead to better business attraction and retention.

As you get started, do you sense any economic issue that’s particularly urgent?

Through the interview process, a couple of questions kept coming up. Lancaster has a long history of manufacturing and a special mix of agriculture with its English and Plain sect farmers.

A common question was how does Lancaster continue to grow and prosper while retaining its traditional identity?

Other issues that were raised focused on how to manage its aging population and attract new businesses. But these are not unique to Lancaster.

I don’t know what the answers are. But I know the solutions need to be tailored to the specifics of what Lancaster wants.

Our agenda will include figuring how do you deconstruct these types of issues to ask the right questions and bring good information to the discussion.

What are the things that Lancaster residents and businesses feel are nonnegotiable? What do we keep?

In tackling these type of issues, CRA will focus on understanding what’s in play, where we do actually have choices and then finding relevant and meaningful data that can answer those questions.

Will you get involved in public policy decisions?

Our goal is to provide respected, digestible analysis that allows for policy discussions to be done in an informed way.

To stay credible, CRA needs to walk a very fine line between being able to guide the questions being asked, while not taking positions or being seen as the decision maker.

A policy debate may center around what’s the right amount of preserved agricultural land. CRA would ask, what do you gain and lose if you don’t have that land in preservation?

What are your sources of economic data?

CRA will combine federally sourced, publicly available data with our own data collection.

For example, we are exploring how attitudinal surveys of local residents can give greater insight and meaning to existing data or assist in forecasting. For example, how open are the residents to the idea of relocation? Do they feel the community is prospering?

How will clients access your work?

We anticipate having a mix of products and services. Some of it will be fee-for-service. Some will be subscription based. And some of it will be open access and available through our website.

At its core, CRA wants to advance economic development and the vitality of our region by being a source of rich, evidence-based information for business and community members.

Why did you take this job?

Lancaster’s business and community leaders have a genuine appetite for data-driven, quality economic analysis. It is incredibly refreshing to be talking to people who think that economics can truly help to inform decisions, as opposed to being a modeling exercise.

The opportunity to work in that type of environment is exciting and rewarding. There’s nothing worse than doing research that no one really wants to do anything with.

Over the next 60 days I’m hoping to speak to enough people to get a better feel for what the issues are and where the center should focus its initial efforts.

I am hoping that in the first year I’m completely overwhelmed with questions and issues, and everybody wanting CRA to weigh in.