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Candy sweetens region's economy

December 09, 2007|By DENNIS LARISON

The aroma of chocolate has permeated areas of Central Pennsylvania for more than a century. People began to worry about the future of the region's chocolate production after The Hershey Co. announced production cuts.

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. (AP) - For more than 100 years, the sweet scent of chocolate has been a trademark aroma in central Pennsylvania.

Since last February, when The Hershey Co. announced a plan to cut 1,500 jobs and eliminate a third of its production lines, people have been questioning how much longer that scent will last.

In Elizabethtown, which has been in the thick of chocolate since 1915, Mars Snackfood US, the maker of Milky Way and Three Musketeers candy bars, is betting $75 million that the distinctive aroma will be around for some time.

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Work on a 70,000-square-foot expansion, which will increase the size of the Mars plant by nearly 15 percent, kicked into high gear here in late August when the borough closed a portion of Bainbridge Street to make room for the project.

Company and borough officials emphasize that the main benefit of the expansion will be the retention of current jobs, not the creation of new ones. Only about 30 new workers are expected to join the 400 or so already working at the plant.

In neighboring Mount Joy, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, the parent company of Wilbur Chocolate, has also just expanded, increasing the size of its cacao-bean roasting operation.

Although modest compared with the scale of many industrial expansions, these projects illustrate some of the factors that come into play as Lancaster County officials work to retain the area's predominance in food processing.

"This story is on the fringe of all the other stuff happening in the area," said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board, which has been working with Mars to line up help from the commonwealth for its project. The overall picture involves about a 10-county area, he said.

"There's lots of stuff coming down the pike," Sheely said. "We've been working a lot on upgrading the skills of workers," especially the skills of the people who maintain the ever-more-sophisticated equipment in food-processing plants. These industries "are moving from less-skilled to more-skilled jobs," he said. "These are jobs that average $69,000 a year. They're very well-paid jobs."

Figures from 2004 show Lancaster County with about 15,000 people employed in agriculture and food processing, said John Biemiller, vice president of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County, which also has been working with Mars and Elizabethtown on the project.

"Compared with the national average, we have way more food processing than the typical area," Biemiller said.

Only a small number of those workers make chocolate.

U.S. Labor Department figures for this year show just 735 people employed in Lancaster County in "confectionery manufacturing from cacao beans," Sheely said.

Between 300 and 400 of those work at Cargill's chocolate manufacturing plants in Lititz and Mount Joy, according to Courtney LeDrew, a spokeswoman for Cargill. The Lititz plant produces the company's Wilbur Chocolate and Peter's Chocolate brands. The Mount Joy plant produces chocolate liquor and other chocolate products.

But more significant than the number of chocolate workers in terms of attracting investment, Sheely said, is the fact that the concentration within the county's overall work force is nearly 53 times greater than the national average.

Having a pool of skilled workers can help an area attract more industrial investment.

Public support

"Even though it's not a massive number of jobs, the industry uses that as an indicator of (an area's) competitiveness," Sheely said.

Keeping its share of those workers was a big part of why Mars decided to expand its Elizabethtown plant, said Mars spokeswoman Bertille Glass.

By expanding the plant and putting the best equipment there, she said, Mars will be able to improve the plant's efficiency while increasing production of its rapidly growing Dove chocolate line.

Another factor that came into play in the Mars expansion was the public support for the project.

"To have this level of investment in a small borough in Pennsylvania really is quite a success story regardless of who it is," said Peter Whipple, the borough's manager.

"If we can show Mars we're willing to partner with them, they will see that Elizabethtown is a good place to be."

The typical new industrial project, Whipple said, is on the outskirts of town, reducing the community's green space. The Mars project, by contrast, "is right in an area where you want to see industrial development occur. That's what the state recognized, as well. It will keep jobs in a small town where people still walk to work," he said.

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