Spence Perry: Spring is coming, but summer might bring its own troubles

March 21, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

The five years of economic difficulty this country has experienced have been especially hard on the Cumberland Valley. Unemployment rates have been high and doggedly persistent.

If the nation has had a slow and weak recovery, ours has been sluggardly and positively anemic. The periodic Herald-Mail economic analysis of Washington County reveals a sad tale of two steps forward and one back.

We needed a mild winter and an early spring, as a vacation from nature’s ardors, to give us strength and energy to cope with the ones we have managed to create for ourselves.

Most of the stories about this harsh period relate to unemployment rates, interest-rated stock market fluctuations and the like. The focus is on monetary loss.

There is, however, a range of additional losses, not strictly monetary, that citizens of the valley should be thinking about.

In Fulton County, Pa., north of Hagerstown, since the coming of hard times in 2007, the following realities have come to pass. The county now has no new car dealerships; it had three. It has only one full-service grocery store. There is no place to purchase a man’s suit or a woman’s better dress. The ownership and control of the banks in Fulton County is no longer local (with the exception of credit unions); staffs have been slashed and locations closed. The same is true of the county’s major manufacturing employer.

The results of these losses is more than financial. Even if a strong recovery comes, there will be fewer jobs to which to go back. Each lost job or closed location means there will be fewer opportunities for training or entry-level jobs. American banks and manufacturers have long been points of entry into the economy for non-college bound young people. These channels of opportunity will soon be largely eliminated.

The Fulton County library has cut its hours, and staff outreach into the county has been reduced. State and local government library aid has been cut. The library is more than a place for recreational reading (although this is not a bad thing). At the library is where computerless folks can conduct a job search, write a resume or photocopy a portfolio.

Cultural and educational facilties all over the valley are starved for support of all kinds and their programs are suffering. An important note: If we lose an economic, cultural or educational asset, it might not return. It will be a while before we see new cultural or educational institutions in our midst.

What is happening in Fulton County is happening from Chambersburg to Martinsburg, to one degree or another, and Hagerstown and Washington County have not escaped the pressures and pain of economic contraction.

Recovery from this experience will take time. Right now, folks are once again hopeful at the possibility of “spring shoots” of economic growth — first spotted three years ago. Some key indices are better and have been for some time. The weary and the battered are right to look for the positive, but they must keep careful watch for problems that are not obvious but might be important in the days ahead.

Much as we do not like to think so, what happens in Asia and Europe is important to our recovery. The prospects appear unsettled at best.

Reducing budgets and taxes at all levels is fine, but be careful not to lose our “seed corn,” particularly by cutting research and education.

Effective regulation is important in all areas of economic activity, from financial safeguards to worker health and well-being (we must pay attention to our human capital as well as what is in our banks).

So, spring is here with cold days and warm, and we look to the friendlier days of summer. There is no doubt that summer will come But at some level we must remember that summer has hazards of its own, and sometimes there has been a summer with no “summer” at all.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.

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