The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

State News

April 3, 2014

Lawmakers want more aid for cities

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett announced at the end of 2013 that Bethlehem and Lancaster would be the first cities to use an economic development program designed to let businesses put money they would otherwise pay in state taxes toward downtown improvements.

Now, pretty much everyone wants in on the action.

Several bills circulating at the Capitol would open improvement zones more quickly or allow smaller cities to participate. The program now is limited to cities with more than 30,000 people and cannot be expanded until 2015.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, wants to make the concept available to more cities the size of Johnstown.

“We need bulldozers” to redevelop some areas of the city, he said.

Wozniak said the state will have to determine how much tax revenue it can live without, as lawmakers push to expand the improvement zones.

The zones aim to entice businesses to come and invest in development with money they otherwise would pay to the state in income taxes, franchise taxes, sales taxes and taxes on equipment.

Bethlehem hopes to shift that money to various projects, the most ambitious being a plan to redevelop a portion of the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. site into a Bass Pro Shops store and a hotel and convention center. Another portion of the 1,600-acre steel works is a slots casino.

In Lancaster, officials hope to use the improvement zone to redevelop more than a half-dozen abandoned and blighted proprieties, according to a plan released by state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, has a bill that calls on the state Department of Community and Economic Development to award City Revitalization and Improvement Zones to 15 more cities between now and 2016. Additional designations would be divided among population categories, so smaller cities would have a chance. Critics of this approach wonder if there will be enough bang for the buck to warrant zones in small cities.

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