PLAINS TWP. — Over the next year, about 1,700 new jobs will be added in Luzerne County, said John Augustine, president and CEO of Penn’s Northeast.
The jobs will be added at new developments coming soon, including huge warehouses that Adidas and Patagonia are opening, a new building automotive paints distributor Colours is constructing and the Nardone Bros. expansion in Hanover Twp.
“Those are just the ones that are done deals that we know that are coming that we could talk about,” Augustine said.
Augustine spoke at an inaugural real estate summit Penn’s Northeast hosted Friday at the Woodlands Inn & Resort that focused on real estate trends in Northeast Pennsylvania, statewide and nationwide.
More than 180 people attended the event, which featured panels of officials who spoke about commercial, industrial and office markets.
With new developments coming to the area, panelists said one of the biggest challenges has been a lack of available workers as the unemployment rate in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area has dropped to its lowest level since 2007.
“The unemployment rate has come down so low, both nationally and here, that employers have a smaller pool of unemployed people from which to recruit,” said Jim Cummings, vice president of marketing for Mericle Commercial Real Estate Services.
As a result, Cummings said employers are having a tough time filling all positions.
“Their biggest challenge is finding people who have the skills they need, especially technical skills,” he said. “Companies that call us have started asking questions about labor availability. We weren’t being asked that question five years ago or even three years ago.”
About half of companies interested in locating to the area are distribution centers, Cummings said.
Others inquiries are about office space tied to the health care industry and about 25 percent are from manufacturers, he said.
As growth continues in the area and more companies compete for fewer workers, Augustine said that has led to an increase in wages with some area warehouses paying workers more than $14 an hour.
The starting salaries at e-commerce distribution centers are higher than jobs in retail or the fast food industry, he said.
“We’re not talking wages that require a four-year degree,” Augustine said. “Frankly, when you look at our population, we should have a broad enough economy that has a position for everybody on every skill level.”
Daniel Walsh, regional broker with international real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, said last year, his company was involved in 37.6 million square feet of transactions in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The firm’s clients include Missouri-based NorthPoint Development that constructed Chewy.com and is constructing warehouses nearby in Hanover Twp. for Adidas and Patagonia.
Walsh would not say when Adidas and Patagonia are opening, but referred questions to NorthPoint Development.
Efforts to reach Brent Miles, vice president for NorthPoint Development, were unsuccessful on Friday.
Walsh said the biggest challenge for real estate firms in attracting more development to Northeastern Pennsylvania is land availability because of the topography.
“Once you go south of Hanover Twp., what do you see? State forest land and mountains,” Walsh said.
Since the Hazleton area is on a plateau, Walsh said that made a good location for the Humboldt Industrial Park, one of the largest industrial parks in the state.
The next step to attract more development in the area, he said, is to take functionally obsolete buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s and convert them into functional properties. If not, he said “they’re going to be cheap buildings with cheap tenants with cheap labor.”
To promote the assets in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Mericle Commercial Real Estate Services recently launched an initiative called “DiscoverNEPA” that includes a website and social media.
The website includes about 1,500 amenities in the region and Cummings said he expects that number could grow to 5,000. In addition to photos, a team also has been posting videos of the region’s amenities.
“For someone who says there’s nothing to do in Northeastern Pennsylvania, they should build a website like we did because the amenities in this area are endless,” Cummings said. “We think it’s a story that needs to be told regionally and we hope the community embraces it.”