Feb 5, 2022
The City of Williamsport has lost population, as have other cities in Pennsylvania, a crisis of societal changes and the economy.
And officials say there are no easy answers.
Since 1990, about 4,500 fewer residents live in Williamsport, and the trend does not seem to be reversing.
“Cities need a growing population to counter losses in tax revenue, either the property or earned income or local services tax base,” said Skip Memmi, director of the city Department of Community and Economic Development.
The city’s population based on the most recent 10-year U.S. Census is 27,776, making the city about the 17th largest in Pennsylvania. Based on the annual American Community Survey, it is 29,381, which is noted on the city website at www.cityofwilliamsport.org.
Loss in population also reduces the chances for the city to get various state and federal grant awards, erodes the tax base and shortens the available workforce.
“The issue of population decline is likely the most important issue the city faces as it has ripple effects throughout the city, and impacts every other issue the city faces, specifically the fiscal and economic challenges facing the city,” City Councilman Adam Yoder said.
“Our current tax structure, legislated by the state, incentivises population growth, and reversing the current trend is foundational to addressing the city’s fiscal and economic challenges,” he said.
Today, “a bi-partisan group of Council members have been having numerous discussions on reversing the decline in the city’s population, and those discussions have been centered on the development of a comprehensive economic development strategy and execution plan focused on growing our population,” Yoder said.
Such an economic plan has a price tag of about $150,000 and has been discussed as possibly fund-able through use of the city’s portion of $25.5 million of the American Rescue Plan.
Without the cash infusion, the city has plans on paper only.
“The final development and advancement of this plan, unfortunately, hasn’t progressed to the level I had hoped for, but I’m hopeful that these efforts will continue and this work will come to fruition sooner than later, because if we can address this foundational challenge it will aid our efforts to address many of the other challenges the city faces – public safety, public infrastructure, etc.” Yoder said.
Memmi, whose previous work experience was in Dauphin County, said lost population and the negative financial impacts are not isolated to this city.
“It is not just a Williamsport phenomena, but is happening across the state,” Memmi said.
As more people flock to warmer climates to live and work the colder Northeast becomes less attractive, he said.
According to the Census, Williamsport in 1990 had 32,270 people, and it has been a gradual sliding slope since.
By 2000, at the dawn of the millennium, with a downtown renaissance occurring, Williamsport showed a population of 30,706.
It was the start of a slow leak and the more recent Census population indicates far fewer people living here.
Whether the figures are accurate is debatable.
“I do not believe they capture everyone in the city,” Memmi said.
The city hosts two major colleges — Pennsylvania College of Technology and Lycoming College, which have students throughout the year who are in the city but not captured by head counters and included in those population tallies.
Still, the city is mandated to provide services to those people, which include students, staff and visitors.
“None of the transient population is included in the data,” Memmi said.
Nonetheless, the city is required to provide services for these people, he said.
For example, when a vehicle accident happens or an illness for this uncounted segment of population, city emergency services respond.
“That population that is served never gets totally captured in the Census track and we are taking care of everyone that comes through,” Memmi said.
The federal government “doesn’t always provide the appropriate resources to capture the true cost of doing business, he said.
As Memmi pointed out, such figures are debatable and are based on the annual American Community Survey versus the population count every decade. But, for the most part, it shows a slow leak of residents and a challenge on the forefront of Williamsport City Council and the administration of Mayor Derek Slaughter.
Memmi acknowledged creating the plan in conjunction with the council, administration and stakeholders is one of his goals.
“We are working on a comprehensive plan,” he said. “We do not have answers, but understand need for the comprehensive plan.”
Enough data and information on plans the city engaged in prior years may be available. These plans can be taken off the shelf and updated, he said.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses population as part of a formula for dispensing grants to cities, Memmi said.
“It is not the only statistics HUD uses,” he said.
A couple of ways HUD creates a formula, he said.
One way is they look at the population, the number of people who are living in poverty and overcrowded housing units, he said.
The challenge is that because of measurements such as the Census, which shows 1,605 fewer Williamsport residents, the grant funding may not be as high as it could be, Memmi said.
“More people living in the city translates to an increase in tax revenue through collection of earned income, property and new ordinances that are being proposed such as those that target owners of vacant buildings who have let them languish inactive for many years,” he said.
City treasurer/tax collector Nicholas Grimes also described how it is not a challenge to be easily fixed but one that needs to have a plan of action in 2022.
“I don’t have the answer to population growth but it’s a issue we definitely need to tackle,” Grimes said.
“It is an issue in need of a comprehensive plan.
“There’s a lot of pieces to that between making ourselves more appealing to younger generations, to job and wage growth, to housing stock, which all come into play and it needs to be a comprehensive plan,” Grimes said.
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