"This is a big deal for Franklin County's economy to be recognized as a leading rural economy. It reflects the strides that have been made to grow and diversify the economy over the last 10 or 15 years," said L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp.
Ross said advancements have been made despite significant setbacks like plant closures and downsizing at Letterkenny Army Depot. He said the county was able to rebound because it had attracted other large employers to new industrial parks in the early 1990s, lessening the county's reliance on one or two major businesses.
"The study shows not just Franklin but the whole Central Pennsylvania region has benefited greatly from economic activity in the valley. Interstate 81 has played a major role in that success. We live in a rural area but have the benefit of economic activity and growth," said David Sciamanna, president of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce.
But the study also shows the county's flaws, including retention of its high school graduates.
"The net migration of youths leaving the area was fairly high. We need to offer a reason for them to come back after college," Sciamanna said. "The don't perceive themselves as having opportunities here after school."
He said that trend is reversing, but it still rated Franklin County at the bottom - 136th - in youth retention in the study.
This is the first study to compile in one place a consistent set of economic indicators about the nonmetro northeastern United States, Goetz said.
"It struck me no one pulled the information together in one point. There is more information usually available for urban areas and it seemed to me there is a niche for putting this information together," Goetz said.
Another area that pushed Franklin County ahead of the pack is the relative low reliance on food stamps among residents.
The county ranked 13th in that variable, showing few people have a need for food stamps. But it could also signify a lack of education on their availability, Goetz said.
Goetz said he plans to continue compiling the information as new annual statistics become available.
"This is a one-year observation and I want to track it through time," he said. "It is possible the building boom was an aberration."
Both Sciamanna and Ross said the organizations are taking the study seriously and will take a look at the variables the county scored both high and low on.
"Our challenge is to continue to build on these successes while preserving the quality of life," Sciamanna said. "A strong economy protects and enhances our quality of life by creating community wealth that enables us to invest in schools, protect our cultural resources and maintain community services."
The county has many advantages because it is wedged between urban areas to the north and south, but that doesn't mean Franklin County is headed down that road.
"That is really what the struggle is - to try to maintain rural qualities but also the need to create economic opportunity or you will have more people leaving. It's all a very delicate balance," Sciamanna said.
"More than anything I think the study reflects and validates that we have forged a successful economic development strategy for the county," Ross said. "That success is predicated on the cooperation from municipal and business leaders."
The study ranked Nantucket, Mass., Dukes, Mass., Litchfield, Conn., and Grafton, N.H, ahead of Franklin County.
Fulton County landed 19th in the Northeast and fourth among Pennsylvania's rural counties.