A Q&A with DCED Secretary Rick Siger

Rick Siger, DCED Secretary

Rick Siger, DCED Secretary Commonwealth Media Services

At a time when policymakers are looking to propel the state’s economy into new frontiers, Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Rick Siger is helping lead the charge as the state’s chief business officer.

Siger and his department have been crucial to the development of the Shapiro administration’s new ten-year economic development strategy, which the governor himself has touted as the first of its kind in Pennsylvania in two decades. The DCED secretary recently took the time to speak with City & State about components of the administration’s ten-year strategy, the importance of site readiness in attracting new development and regions across the commonwealth that officials can look to for economic development inspiration. 

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

The governor and his administration have outlined this ten-year economic development strategy, and it has a range of proposals and investments. What pieces of the plan do you think will have the biggest impact on the commonwealth?

I'll answer that question two ways. One, I think that the plan is the right combination of interventions to help do that. We developed it very purposefully – not just to be a list of stuff we would do, policies we would pursue or funding initiatives we put forward – but to work together to advance a theory of Pennsylvania's case for change – a case for economic change. So, in some sense, the answer is all of them. 

But to be a little more precise than that, maybe it makes sense to just say something about what I think of as the “year one initiatives” that we’re really focused on driving. 

The first is a $500 million expansion of a pilot program we launched this year called PA SITES. We heard loud and clear from the real estate community, from the development community … that a significant drawback to our economic development efforts is having the product available for companies to move. I’ve seen this firsthand in my role here, both in deals we’ve won and deals we’ve lost. I believe very strongly that this idea of having pad-ready sites available is going to be a significant needle-mover for Pennsylvania’s economy, because it’s going to enable us to compete for the kinds of projects that can be transformational. 

On a different track, I believe the plan articulates this strongly: It’s not just about competing for deals; it’s about strong communities. It’s about exceptionally well-trained workers. In the community domain, we put forward in this year-one initiative a $25 million new program, Main Street Matters, which builds on a program called Keystone Communities, our core Main Street/Elm Street investment program. We’re proposing to grow the budget of that program by almost four times, and the reason is that the data shows that people want to live in great places. And when a company makes the decision to locate, sure, they’re looking at a site. They’re also looking at: Where are my employees going to live? What kind of schools are they going to attend? How walkable is their downtown?

The third example I’m especially excited about is something we’re calling the Pennsylvania Regional Economic Competitiveness Challenge, which is modeled on federal programs like the Build Back Better Challenge, tech hubs and some other states that do this, where we’re empowering regions with planning dollars and expertise to chart their own course for economic growth. 

For example, in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Wilds effort has been a really successful model to pull together multiple municipalities, multiple counties around this idea of tourism and driving visitors to the Wilds. We think there’s a lot of opportunity for that kind of policy entrepreneurship to drive great ideas forward and we want to make at-scale funding available to help incentivize that kind of challenge program. I think Pennsylvania’s diversity of region is tailor-made for a program like this.

You mentioned the PA SITES program. Could you describe that site readiness concept, what that looks like on the ground and ultimately why ensuring more of these sites are ready would be good for the state's economy?

Both for companies that already operate here and are looking to grow, and for companies that are looking at Pennsylvania for the first time, they are making an incredibly complex decision. They're trying to decide where to invest their next dollar. They look at a really wide variety of factors in doing so, but fundamentally, they need a place to put this capability – whether it's a life science research lab or giant manufacturing facility making something in the semiconductor supply chain, they need a place to do it. That sounds simple, but the difference between a pad-ready site like the one we intend to fund through PA SITES and, say, an unassembled parcel of land that may be ready for development in the coming years can be the difference between success and failure in business. 

We have the goods: an outstanding workforce, an unparalleled location, top research universities, and some of the best-known companies in the world. Having these sites ready to go is going to be a really critical arrow in the quiver as we compete for those next deals.

Is there anything in this plan you can do through executive means?

With respect to things we can do without legislative or funding approval, I guess I'd point to a couple of specific things. They fall in the second major goal of the plan, “Make Government Work at the Speed of Business.” Ultimately, that's really about making the government work better alongside businesses. 

Key proof points there are not just a creation by the governor of the Office of Transformation and Opportunity, but the PA-backed permit system that that office has put into place. Where every permit, license, and inspection in the commonwealth has a date certain associated with its delivery, whether you're getting a barber license or a stormwater permit for a major development. Someone building a manufacturing facility doesn't really want their money back on the permit; they just want the permit. What this process has done is, it's brought real accountability and urgency to that question, and we've seen it in the marketplace really making a difference. 

Similarly, in that same goal, we talk a lot about the interagency process. How do agencies work together when businesses are looking to locate in Pennsylvania? One way to think about my job is like chief business officer of Pennsylvania, but businesses all across Pennsylvania are interacting with my colleagues – in some sense – much more than they interact with me. Every time they build a curb cut, they need a PennDOT permit. Every time they need a new air permit or water permit from the DEP. There is a broad-based effort underway among my colleagues and I to improve the predictability, the certainty and the speed with which we serve business.

There’s no question that a bunch of things in here require either policy change or funding. That is why, in some sense, it was so important to do a plan in such an open and collaborative way, because it is going to take all of us together, not just state government, legislative branch, executive branch, but economic developers, and business, and labor and universities all across Pennsylvania getting behind this plan, putting a shoulder to the wheel to move it ahead. That's how we've seen other states succeed – states that we model this plan against in some senses, and it's really how I believe it. I believe that kind of partnership is really required for us to succeed.

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