LEWISBURG — Much like turning the tide on the COVID-19 pandemic, a scholarly research project on its local economic impact was a work in progress.
Dr. Christine Ngo, a Bucknell University professor of economics, said her research “field site” was focused on the central Susquehanna Valley.
“The hope is to be able to eventually scale the understanding from this project to explain issues related to rural America at large,” Ngo said. “There is very little understanding. Most American research, because economists use large aggregate government data, doesn’t have enough understanding of the the rural piece.”
Ngo called the project unique as it will be one of the largest qualitative data sets on rural America to be assembled. To date, over 60 interviews have been conducted with firms, experts, government agencies and community organizers. Some questions overlapped from sector to sector, including how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect them, what have they done and what the business outlook was.
“I asked about the issue of jobs, employment and labor,” Ngo said. “I asked about the issue of market competition. How competitive are the markets? How have they weathered the storm of COVID-19 in the context of either heightened competition with online sales but also reduced competition with physical space.”
Supply chain relationships before and after the start of the pandemic, technology and innovation questions were also part of the thorough study. Local community supporters, such as chambers of commerce, business associations and public agencies were also looked at. They included CareerLink, downtown partnerships and others.
“I have a sense of what they think of the rural economy in terms of COVID-19 from their perspective,” Ngo said. “And I also have the perspective of firms and hopefully, very soon of workers.”
The final stage of drafting two research papers was underway, Ngo said, but conclusions may not be reached for five-to-seven years. So far, Ngo has found that some businesses have been able to retrain workers while others have had to take risks and move away from their traditional business models.
Ngo added that a look at cultural identity was included in questions. Though unique for economists, cultural data could better put the findings in context.
Uniqueness of the central Pennsylvania region included the strength of the business community. Though the area is rural, Ngo said the research refutes the image some have of “closed” communities in rural areas.
“A lot more is going on in central Pennsylvania,” Ngo said. “The history and legacy of all manufacturing in this region continues on with some great strength. I am really surprised how much we don’t talk about the manufacturing base here and how our manufacturing firms are doing.”
Central Pennsylvania’s strength also includes its location, which Ngo said was frequently mentioned as data was collected.
“It has reduced some level of costs to produce in this region,” she added. “But in another sense it is so connected to the rest of the northeast region. You have the benefit of customer reach.”
Similarly, Ngo said some local industries and local products are shielded from international competition because of their uniqueness. She added that recently-signed federal initiatives to address semiconductor shortages through domestic manufacturing would be beneficial to central Pennsylvania.
The question from here, Ngo said, will be how to take advantage of the changes brought by the pandemic.