Hershey, PA. Photo by Jon Dawson via Flickr.
In the early 1900s, Milton Hershey had a plan for a chocolate factory. Using proceeds from the sale of his caramel company, Hershey bought land for the factory in central Pennsylvania’s Derry Township, near his birthplace. What would follow, however, was much more than just a factory. Based on Hershey’s vision, Hershey, PA grew to include schools, shops, a theater, a stadium, and even the Hershey Amusement Park, which was originally intended for the recreational use of employees and their families. The indelible imprint that Hershey left on Derry Township can be seen in everything from the Milton Hershey School, which continues to educate underprivileged children, to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, founded after Hershey’s death through an endowment of his trust, to the Hershey’s Kiss–shaped street lights that adorn downtown Chocolate Avenue.
A model smart growth town, Hershey, PA was built as a place where residents could live, work, and play. High quality housing, an affordable transportation system, tree-lined streets, and cultural opportunities combined to offer Hersey’s residents a uniquely high quality of life. The vision of Milton Hershey was as much about progress as it was about people, as much about opportunity as it was inspiration, and as much about community as it was chocolate.
Like in many downtowns throughout the United States, the automobile era following WWII brought suburban sprawl to Hershey, and many of the historic farms that surrounded the town became new car-centric suburbs and developments. Even as the surrounding landscape changed, however, the downtown core built by Milton Hershey over a century ago remained intact and the town evolved to meet the changing needs of its residents and visitors.
Today, Derry Township, with a population of 25,000, is working to regain what it lost and to preserve the land-use legacy begun by Milton Hershey. In 2010, the Township Board of Supervisors agreed to update their Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinances to ensure that growth continued in a manner consistent with the preferences of residents and the city’s rich history as a model community.
Participating in these efforts is Township Supervisor Sandy Ballard, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “Smart growth, to me, is not only about creating communities where people can get to their areas of daily need without depending on a car, but is also about being fiscally prudent,” says Ballard. “When you allow huge developments to be built far from downtown, you have to spend thousands of dollars more on roads, sewers, police, school buses, and other utilities and the tax returns per acre don’t pay out. Smart growth is about being a better steward of our tax dollars.”
The process to realign development in Derry Township began with a largely volunteer-driven community survey, and a series of meetings with a wide array of community groups and leaders. This resulted in recognition that residents shared many of the same goals for the future, including the preservation of their town’s character, a focus on downtown revitalization, the use of infill and mixed use development, and the creation of a safe, multimodal transportation system. A formal vision statement encompassing these goals was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2012.
Meanwhile, a Township residentformed The Downtown Hershey Association to create a revitalization plan for Hershey and, just this month, released its first conceptual designs. . Work continues to complete the Comprehensive Plan and update the city’s land use codes, and a Regional Bike Connection Study is near completion. The Bike Study will include eight regional municipalities.
“We are blessed to have a wonderful crosstown bike path already,” says Ballard, who is spearheading the regional connectivity initiative. “This study will recommend small tweaks or additions to make it more useful for transportation and for regional connections.” Ballard hopes the bicycle access improvements in Derry Township will be followed by an increased number of bike lanes, and is also interested in bringing a bikeshare program to the city. “I am a true believer in the philosophy of making the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Ballard. “Bikeshare in Hershey would be great for commuters who currently drive to transit stops, but also great for our tourism industry.”
Today, Derry continues to boast a small-town lifestyle with big city amenities—aided by the fact that, in addition to the 9,000 employees of Hershey Medical Center and 2,000 full-time and 7,000 part-time employees of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, Derry Township receives 6 million visitors to Hershey each year, as well as 4 million medical visitors. Of the 27 square miles that comprise Derry Township, 12 square miles are owned by the $8 billion Hershey Trust.
In addition to these great assets, Derry Township is fortunate to have an engaged community that has been both a proponent of and participant in the ongoing planning initiatives. Supervisor Ballard envisions the future of Derry Township as a string of pearls: “The main pearl is our revitalized downtown complete with streetscape improvements,” she explains. “The pearls continue as our other growth areas – around the medical center, a cluster of high tech industries, and a few other key locations.” The string of pearls she describes are connected by the transit and infrastructure improvements already underway or planned for Hershey, allowing people the ability to access everything they need to do without necessarily using a car—the ability to live and thrive, in a community, in much the same way as the original workers of Hershey Chocolate Company.