CARLISLE — Jeff Wood owned a bookstore in Gettysburg for 19 years before establishing Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle 27 years ago, and during that time, he’s seen plenty of big-box businesses come and go.
“The strip malls went away in the ’70s, and they started building enclosed malls — like the MJ Mall and the Camp Hill Mall. It recreated downtowns in a closed, controlled environments,” he said. “(Now) there’s no MJ Mall — there’s a Walmart. There’s no Plaza mall, in essence — there are anchor stores and an odd hallway in between.”
It’s these types of temporary, economic shifts that Wood said are reasons why more people should be concerned about preserving the timelessness of downtowns and less interested in opting for warehouses and big chain stores.
“(The downtown) is viable because people still want to live downtown, walk downtown,” he said. “There is 250 years of history with a track record of people looking to live in downtown Carlisle ... and we’ve created a stable community for ourselves.”
Wood was the first speaker at a Leadership Cumberland event Thursday that tackled the debate between historic preservation and economic growth.
Jonathan Bowser, CEO of Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp., also talked to the group of community leaders at the event. He later said there is a risk when it comes to approving development of businesses, especially as technology and interest in the area changes.
“Two years ago, it was unheard of for someone to ask for 1 million square feet of space,” he said, noting that speculative interest was even rarer. “Now, that’s what they want — 1 to 3 million square feet of open space, just for spec(ulative).”
Bowser said technology and regulations could drastically change the way businesses want to develop, as well as determine which ones may survive in the future. However, predicting the future of business has always been a difficult task.
“When you look at what’s working, in 20 years, it’s obsolete,” Bowser said. “But people still need products, they still need household goods.”
Wood said his concern with warehouses being obsolete in a decade is that these types of developments could make Cumberland County look a lot like what he sees from the window of a train passing through northern New Jersey — a lot of empty and deteriorating warehouses.
That was the heart of a question from one attendee who asked Bowser and Giant Food Store Real Estate Director Joe LaCagnina why more businesses don’t opt to build on land that already has buildings instead of taking over open space and land formerly used for agriculture. Bowser said one reason is how regulations and interest have changed over the years.
“The old look of buildings just aren’t feasible in today’s world,” he said. “There were height requirements (that are different from) 10 to 15 years ago. They want new buildings because it makes more economical sense. You have to purchase land, and (if there’s a building) there’s a removal cost, and you never know what you’re going to find.”
Bowswer added CAEDC is working with the Cumberland County commissioners to incentivize developers to reuse existing buildings.
LaCagnina said Giant tries to look at previously developed land as an option, and both he and Silver Spring Township Supervisor Vince DiFilippo, who talked about the importance of agricultural and open space preservation, said Giant was able to do so in the township, as well as Mechanicsburg for those sites. Bowser noted Giant is also a business that tends to attract other businesses. He said realtors have told him that the Wertzville Road exit of Interstate 81 is a booming area currently because of a new Giant being built near the exit.
Whatever growth the county sees, Wood said he hopes county leaders will take into account the viability of a business, as well as the aesthetics that draw people from the Midstate, from Dickinson College and from traveling on I-81 to downtown Carlisle.
“Preservation and development don’t have to be at war,” he said. “We should ask ‘What do you want to invest in?’ The ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ is the worst thing you can say about future planning.”