NEW CASTLE, Penn., February 9, 2015 — Lawrence County Commissioner Steve Craig joined host Matthew Geiger for NCTV45’s ongoing discussion on economic revival in the Rust Belt town of New Castle. Craig debunked the notion that downtown New Castle is not a safe place to visit and has nothing to offer the average worker or shopper.
Craig walks through and shops in downtown New Castle on a regular basis. He pointed out several bright spots in the city’s economy, but identified some continuing problems as well.
New Castle’s Washington Street was originally the town’s main street. Now Mill Street — which begins as Old Mercer Road, turns into Highland Avenue, then finally turns into Mill Street — serves as the main street, with Jefferson Street the main street in terms of traffic flow. Jefferson transitions from the far busier Route 18, which runs from the more affluent Neshannock Township before continuing into New Castle
Unfortunately, the booming economy of nearby Neshannock does not continue into New Castle’s downtown. Instead, traffic is diverted to the Walmart Supercenter by a sharp left turn into Union Township. In addition, Interstate 376 allows traffic from Route 18 to circumvent New Castle entirely. The same is true of other surrounding routes into the city.
Understanding that New Castle needs more businesses and has some serious limitations, Commissioner Craig conceded business rent is too high while weak internet connectivity is also an issue. Fortunately, the area around Washington Street and Mill Street is emerging as a professional services district. In that locale, internet service is also much better.
Attracting more high-tech businesses into the city is a major challenge for New Castle. If overcome, it would help New Castle build a diversified business portfolio, attract workers with greater disposable incomes, and ultimately result in an improved tax base.
The issue of tearing down dilapidated commercial and residential buildings was raised on the program. In response, Craig said that efforts to address the problem were already in the works.
The Commissioner agreed that commercial rents are too high; building owners need to lower their expectations to more successfully attract new tenants. New Castle commercial rents are often cost prohibitive, as existing commercial structures in the city were built to support far larger businesses than the area is currently likely to attract. The rental rate per square foot seems reasonable, but too much space included in rental requirements makes rentals far too expensive.
Given a number of rental properties that are owned by outside interests, an unwillingness or inability to revisit rental terms and space requirements could serve as a perverse tax incentive, making it attractive for the current owners to take a loss on existing vacant properties ultimately at the expense of the New Castle community.