Our Towns

Hermitage 2030 Plan Helps Shape City’s Future

HERMITAGE, Pa. — After nearly a year of research and planning, the city of Hermitage is ready to host the first of two public hearings on Hermitage 2030 – a long-range comprehensive plan to help guide the city’s growth, investment priorities and community and economic development.

It’s the first comprehensive plan Hermitage has undertaken since 1993 and is long overdue because of the changes in the community over the past decade, says its director of planning and development, Marcia Hirschmann.

And while other planning initiatives have been implemented since then, the comprehensive plan lets the planning and development department take a broad view of the community and dig into the “nuts and bolts,” such as zoning and land use, she says.

“We’ve done a lot of things with those over the years, but they’re the kinds of things that you need to revisit from time to time to make sure you’re on the right track,” Hirschmann says.

In October 2017, the city contracted with Mackin Engineering Co. in Pittsburgh to assist with initial research. The city budgeted about $100,000 for the first 15 to 18 months of the plan’s development, says Gary Gulla, assistant city manager. The city received some $25,000 in grant monies “for the zoning portion of the plan,” he adds.

During the initial research phase, Hirschmann has worked closely with Amy Wiles, lead senior planner at Mackin, which designs comprehensive plans for cities, municipalities and counties throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The idea behind such a plan is to take stock of what’s happening now compared to past trends and what has changed since the last plan was adopted. Plans identify the most pressing issues, “and tries to project out what those might be over the next 10 to 20 years,” Wiles says.

Some of the changes Hermitage has experienced over the last decade are not unique to the city, Wiles says. Among the challenges the city faces are the loss of retail, an aging population, attracting younger residents and filling existing jobs.

To start, the city conducted a public survey that was accessible at Hermitage2030.com. The 14-question survey was available for six weeks and received 337 responses. Complete survey results and project updates are available on the website. Residents can still offer feedback there, as well as on social media using the hashtag #Hermitage2030.

In addition, city commissioners assembled a 20-person steering committee comprised of residents working in industries such as education, health care, real estate, home building and the senior community. The city met with focus groups as well, Hirschmann says.

“We had a good focus group with the high school students,” she says. “They were real big on the town center and recreation.”

Establishing a city center and improving walkability are among the most prominent desires, Wiles says. The city center concept has been discussed since the early 2000s, when a master plan was recommended in the PA 18 Planning and Transportation Study completed in 2007.

“Making the city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly has been a priority for over the last 20 years,” says Jeremy Coxe, assistant director of planning and development. “It takes a lot of time and funds to connect sidewalks and trails, and the city has been working on it. And we are hearing that we should continue to do that and even amp up efforts.”

While the city has taken strides to that end – such as adding sidewalks and constructing a walking trail along the eastern side of state Route 18 – it hasn’t pulled all of the elements into one plan since then, Wiles says.

“Our work is taking all of those studies, seeing what is still relevant to move forward with and include in this plan, so you can see a holistic picture of everything ranging from housing to parks and recreation to transportation to economic development,” she says.

Survey results show that retail is the No. 1 type of development residents want. On a scale of one to seven, with seven being the most desirable, retail received a 5.14. Restaurant development was second with 4.9, followed by recreational with 4.51.

“Economic development has been a big concern and point of interest,” Wiles observes. “Obviously our community is not unique, but the retail landscape changing the way it has in recent years is a concern.”

Last year, Macy’s and Sears announced they would close their stores in the Shenango Valley Mall, followed by Kmart’s closure in April. This resulted in the loss of “a few hundred-thousand square feet of retail space,” says Gulla, the assistant city manager.

“The city can’t address that singlehandedly, because that’s private enterprise and private property,” Wiles adds. “But we want to find out what we can do and what’s realistic.”

To help with economic development, Mackin brought in Fourth Economy Consulting of Pittsburgh. The consulting firm will provide market analysis and look specifically at commercial and residential development trends, which will help Mackin “direct our efforts in a way that makes sense” to Hermitage, she says.

The goal for any recommendations made in the plan, she says, is to establish amenities that retain current residents while attracting news ones, specifically the younger generations.

An aging population can affect “everything from housing to economic development and jobs,” she says.

The median age in Hermitage is 49, compared to the state median age of 40 and the national median of 37.

Officials have worked on attracting families“for the past several years,” says City Manager Gary Hinkson.

“One of the things we look forward to with the comprehensive study is to maybe give us more tools in our toolbox as we move forward,” Hinkson says. “We have put a major focus on recreation facilities, marketing and trying to promote the education opportunities, not just in the city but in the region.”

Education opportunities such as those provided at the eCenter@LindenPointe are assets that the city can leverage to attract younger families, Wiles says.

For instance, the technology incubator’s College Connector program matches college graduates to companies in the region who are looking for talent, which is a challenge across the nation, she says.

And while increasing the number of new industries and jobs is always important, it’s equally important to fill the jobs that exist. In the survey, job creation was voted most important for future development and attracting new business and industry was selected as the No. 1 priority for spending money.

“When people talk about needing jobs to bring people here, that’s not always the case,” Wiles says. “We’re doing comprehensive plans in Greene County and Fayette County [Pa]. When talking to some of the businesses there, we find that we have jobs. We don’t have people to fill them.”

Fourth Economy vice president Jerry Paytas advised the steering committee in June that jobs have increased in all sectors but retail.

Initial research shows that 10,000 people commute to Hermitage for work, Gulla notes, primarily in financial, health care and the expanding manufacturing industry.

“We’ve had several major expansions in our industrial corridor,” Gulla says.

Joy Cone wrapped up a $22 million expansion that began operations lasts month and two years ago Miller Industries completed a $25 million expansion that added 140,000 square feet of space and 100 new employees to its plant on Kirila Boulevard.

Other investments in Hermitage include an $85 million upgrade at CCL Industries’ container division plant last year and a $10 million expansion at Solar Atmospheres in 2016.

Mackin and the city are wrapping up the first phase of the study and expect to have a draft of recommendations ready to go for the first public hearing Sept. 12, Wiles says. The public will have an opportunity to offer feedback during that hearing.

A second hearing will be held when the plan’s draft is complete “so we can present recommendations and get feedback there before we finalize it to move forward,” she says.

Recommendations can range from physical upgrades such as building a new park to policy-oriented issues such as updates to ordinances and regulations, Hirschmann says.

“We’re just trying to make the city process and the development process as streamlined and user-friendly as possible,” she says.

Once the plan is established, the onus is on the city’s planning commission and staff to review the plan annually, take stock of what’s been done and ensure the plan stays current, Hirschmann says.

As far as the plan’s success is concerned, that falls on the community “and how dedicated they are,” she says.

So far, Wiles has seen “a strong commitment” from the city.

“Whatever the comprehensive plan recommendations are, I think it stands to reason that a majority of those will be implemented,” she says.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.