by Howard J. Grossman, AICP
There is a distinctive and essential process which has made great strides and achieved spectacular success across the Commonwealth since its founding in 1982. This is the Ben Franklin Partnership, rated by many as the finest and most powerful technology program of all fifty states in the nation. Under the leadership of Governor Dick Thornburg, the program was initiated, has grown under both Republican and Democratic governors, and continues today to be a bright and shining star in the overall nature of how the state can be economically competitive in a global economy.
The writer had the fortunate experiences of being fapped as a board member of the partnership for eleven years by two governors, Thornburg and Robert P. Casey. This enabled him to see first hand the startling role that the partnership has played in bringing new talent to fruition and jobs to Commonwealth business and industries being born during a time of economic challenges, the partnership helped to stem the tide of a disappearing industrial workforce.
Thornburg and Lt. Governor Bill Scranton acted on their campaign promise to address the ailing economy a business-labor organization did a study and the results were published in a report entitled “ Choices for Pennsylvanians” in September, 1981.
■ Pennsylvania has been losing out to other states in the competition for rapidly expanding high technology industries. One reason is its inability to train enough youth in applied science and technology. A refocusing of faculties and institutions of learning to meet future work force needs in these areas is critical.
■ Pennsylvania should encourage private investors to make more investments in high risk ventures. Along with this, expand and better target government-based business loan funds as sources of venture capital for Pennsylvania small businesses. Such funds should be used only to fill needs unmet by private capital markets and higher risk ventures.
■ Pennsylvania should encourage the creation of multiple-occupant enterprise development sites.
■ Pennsylvania should provide specialized technical assistance to facilitate the continued successful operation of sound companies.
As a result of this and other research, resulted in a six point economic development strategy, including one addressing advanced technology.
Thornburg stated “we have proposed in our state that government serve as a catalyst for growth in this area through the Ben Franklin Partnership.”
Walt Plosila, Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Policy was charged with directing policy package and strategy, and on December 17, 1981, he released an opinion paper titled “An Advanced Technology Promotion for Pennsylvania” making points related to high tech industries being on the rise, financing should be more readily available, and Pennsylvania should focus on already existing advanced technology both to raise awareness and to draw new advanced technology companies.
There was outreach to colleges and universities, industry groups, local economic development entities and chambers of commerce to obtain their support and input. Backing for the plan ensued and other technology corridors were studied such as California, Massachusetts and North Carolina. On March 22, 1982, the Ben Franklin Partnership Challenge Grant Program (H.B. 2344) was introduced, and the General Assembly appropriated $1 million to the program on June 8, 1982. In December, 1982, the Governor signed the bill into law. Thus, was created the astonishing and innovative Ben Franklin Partnership, a landmark program that continues to this day, currently ion the hands of Governor Tom Wolf.
The program serves all 67 counties of the Commonwealth through its four regionally based centers in the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and University Park. What occurs is the combination and collaboration to develop and partnerships, college and university relationships, and investment strategies that bet serve their regional economies under the umbrella mission of the Ben Franklin Partnership. Thirty-six years have gone by and while the name has changed to the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the zeal and excitement remain. It has earned international recognition and acclaim as the gold standard in technology-based economic development. Assuming leadership roles in supporting ecosystems that support innovation in areas such as business incubation and centers of excellence, it has received multiple awards and certainly achieved and resulted in being a resounding success.