GRCA names new chair, welcomes new board members

GRCA President & CEO Jim Gerlach, Michele Richards, and Sara Kuzma-Stump PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

Sara Kuzma-Stump, director of sales and marketing at Suburban Testing Labs Inc. Has been named chair of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance for 2023. Laura Haffner, regional bank president at Wells Fargo will serve as vice chair. 

Jack Gombach, government affairs consultant for McNees Strategic Solutions Group has been named treasurer.  

“The GRCA does great work to help businesses in our community grow. From training, networking, economic development support, and connecting companies to important resources, I’m so proud to be a chairperson of this great organization,” said Stump in a release. “When the Greater Reading Area thrives, our businesses succeed. We need to create a community where employees and potential companies recognize our area as a great place to live, work and play. And I’m excited to be a part of that.”  

Stump succeeds Michele Richards, director of Treasury sales at Fulton Bank, who will now serve as immediate past chair. 

 “On behalf of the chamber board, we are extremely appreciative of the terrific leadership Michele provided over the last year,” said Jim Gerlach, president & CEO of the GRCA. “Her professionalism, common sense problem-solving, and dedication to the Berks business community were outstanding and helped move the Chamber to a higher level of service and accomplishment for both our members and the County’s communities.”  

The board also welcomed four new board members: Alba Fernandez, vice president and community lender at Community First Fund; Ben Leisawitz, a partner at Barley Snyder, LLC; Mike Riley, an account executive at EthoSource; and Stephen Bonner, vice president of operations at DoubleTree by Hilton Reading. 

GRCA supports expansion of Clean Slate program

The Greater Reading Chamber Alliance has come out in favor of legislation that would make it easier for people with minor criminal convictions to get jobs. 

Jim Gerlach, president & CEO of the GRCA has sent a letter to the Berks County state delegation members detailing the chamber’s support for H.B. 1826, Expansion of the Clean Slate Program to include nonviolent, low-level drug-related felonies.  

“GRCA members support the bipartisan effort to expand the Clean Slate program through H.R. 1826. The original Clean Slate program has helped over 1.2 million Pennsylvanians move past their mistakes, beat addictions and bring positive change to their lives,” he said in the statement. 

“In a time where all employers are desperate for workers and it is estimated that for every one job seeker, there are two open positions, commonsense solutions like this proposal are critical. We applaud the legislative leaders who are introducing practical ways to expand our employee base through these types of reforms,” he said.  

“We are pleased to see that this legislation would align Pennsylvania law with best practices and evidence-based policies from other states that have successfully initiated these improvements. H.B. 1826 would expand automated Clean Slate sealing to low-level drug felony after 10 years with a crime-free record. The drug conviction will not be eligible if the punishment imposed was a sentence of imprisonment of three years or more, which excludes trafficking and other serious or violent offenses.” 

He noted that September is recognized as National Recovery Month and he felt that the passage of H.B. 1826 would serve as a goal and a reward for citizens who have worked hard to move beyond their addictions.  

“This bill would also be a huge help for our business community who continue to search for additional workforce capacity. We support this bipartisan effort and encourage the Berks County state delegation members to vote for this bill,” he said. 

GRCA to host Latino affairs commission

Members of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance will talk about programs the chamber has to support and attract Latino businesses Friday when it hosts the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs. 

The Commission works to advise the governor on policies and legislation that impact Latino American communities. 

GACLA and its commissioners have served Pennsylvania’s growing Latino community since 1971. The commission is composed of 20 volunteer members appointed by the governor for a two-year term.  

The chamber will also give an update on the Berks Women2Women’s Mujer a Mujer leadership development program.  

The Berks Latino Workforce Development Board and GACLA Executive Director, Luz Colon, will discuss events to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which is Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.  

GRCA releases Berks State of the Economy

The Greater Reading Chamber Alliance has released its second annual Mid-Year State of the Economy, a compiled economic snapshot of Berks County.   

The largest industry sector in Berks County based on both Gross Domestic Product and employment numbers continues to be manufacturing, employing 30,038 workers.  

While manufacturing employment numbers are strong, the numbers indicate there are approximately 2,000 fewer workers than in 2019, before the pandemic.  

This runs counter to other economies in the region where their workforces are at or above 2019 levels.  

It suggests Berks County businesses may face greater challenges in meeting market demand and preserving productivity. 

Berks County’s Gross Domestic Product, which is the total value of goods and services produced by a region, expanded 5.8% in 2021. That follows a contraction of 2.8% in 2020. As of 2021, total GDP in Berks was $21.5 billion. 

The Economic Development Company (EDC) of Lancaster County Center for Regional Analysis said that the second quarter GDP forecasts are varied, signaling uncertainty over how quickly a recession could materialize.  

The latest estimate from the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow forecasts negative growth in the second quarter (-1.2%).  

In contrast, The Conference Board forecasts positive growth (+0.8%), noting that it anticipates the US economy is headed towards a “shallow recession” at the end of the year and into early 2023. 

The report also showed that key sectors in Berks’ economy continue to operate with a significantly smaller employee base than prior to the pandemic. 

Wages have increased 4.4% in 2022, compared to 9.4% during this same period in 2021 

The overall cost of living remains lower than the national average and surrounding metropolitan areas 

Consumer spending in Berks County has flattened, while nationally it has continued to rise. The local shift suggests county consumers may be adopting a more conservative stance as inflation continues. 

The cost of housing continues to be lower than surrounding communities. Despite lower costs, Berks County continues to be challenged in diverse and desired housing options. 



Pennsylvania’s 2022-2023 budget praised by business community

Business leaders and stakeholders around the state are offering mostly praise for the $45.2 billion 2022-2023 Pennsylvania General Appropriations Budget, which was passed by the state legislature and then signed by the governor on July 8. 

The budget, which includes federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, represents a 2.9% increase over the previous year’s spending, but is $500 million less than Gov. Tom Wolf’s original budget. 

The feature of the budget that has garnered the most praise from business leaders is the fact that it cuts the Corporate Net Income (CNI) tax rate from 9.99% to 8.99% and creates a phased reduction to 4.99%. 

“This tax change will greatly benefit our small business and agribusiness communities, helping them leverage additional funds to invest in expansion, improvements, and technology upgrades, said Jim Gerlach, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, adding that it “will send a clear signal that Pa. is truly ‘Open for Business.’” 

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce also spoke in favor of the change, saying that the state’s business community has long advocated for a reduction to improve the state’s overall competitiveness and economic climate. 

For decades, Pennsylvania’s CNIT rate, which at 9.99 percent was the highest flat rate in the country, served as a barrier to growth, said PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein. 

“This monumental tax reform package is a giant step towards making Pennsylvania more competitive,” he said 

Gerlach also applauded the use of the ARPA funds. 

“We are very pleased to see $42 million of American Rescue Plan funds go to paying down outstanding debt in the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund which will ensure the Unemployment Compensation Tax levied on businesses will not be increased due to COVID related job loss,” he said. 

The budget also provides increases in the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) on top of an $850 million increase for K-12 school districts with $225 million earmarked for the 100 neediest school districts. 

The leadership of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education said the budget would have a positive impact on higher education, as well. 

“We are incredibly appreciative of the governor and General Assembly for this historic investment in the 90,000 students that our PASSHE universities serve,” said Cynthia Shapira, chair of the PASSHE board of governors. “This unprecedented additional funding recognizes that state system universities have kept their promises to the state with a redesign that is delivering positive results for our commonwealth and more opportunities for our students.   

The 2022-23 state budget invests $552.5 million in PASSHE, a $75 million increase from $477.5 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Shapira said this is the largest single-year increase PASSHE has received from the state and will benefit students by allowing the state system to hold tuition flat for the fourth consecutive year, despite inflation. 

Additionally, the budget provides $125 million in one-time ARPA funding to support system redesign. In total, the budget invests $677.5 million in the state-owned university system and its students. 

Those in senior care also praised the budget. 

LeadingAge PA, an association representing more than 360 senior services providers, said they will benefit from funding provided by the 2022-23 budget. 

The budget provides a 17.5% rate increase in direct aid to nursing homes, which it said is the first across-the-board Medicaid funding increase in nearly a decade. This Medicaid funding increase is effective Jan. 1, 2023, with over $131 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding also included to help bridge the gap. 

“These historic steps come at a time when long-term care providers continue to battle unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic,” said LeadingAge PA President and CEO Garry Pezzano.   

“Pennsylvania’s long-term care providers have struggled for too long with dwindling resources that threaten to severely limit the aging population’s access to care,” Pezzano said. “Pennsylvanians deserve the best long-term care system in America. Today, we took an important step toward achieving that goal.” 

Not all organizations were happy with the budget, however, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) expressed disappointment that it did not get the funding it was promised. 

The Governor’s initial budget proposal to fully fund the DRBC with more than $893,000, however, legislative negotiations cut funding to $217,000, the same level that Pennsylvania has been funding the commission at since 2014. 

“Full share funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission from each of the basin states is a major priority of the Coalition because the Commission is a key player in the proper management of the Watershed” said Kelly Knutson, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. “With full support of all the basin states, the DRBC would have the staffing and programming support necessary to effectively monitor water quality and make informed decisions on river flow management.” 

Alvernia offering discount to Reading chamber members

Alvernia University in Reading will be partnering with the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance to offer a discount on tuition to its members. 

The university will offer GRCA members a 20% discount of tuition for all eligible graduate and adult undergraduate programs. 

“GRCA is committed to learning and advancing our workforce, and we are excited to offer our members a tuition discount to pursue professional and personal development through our partnership with Alvernia,” said Julie Larison, senior director of membership services for the GRCA. 

Accelerated bachelors, master’s and doctoral programs and certificate programs will be available to members in addition to full access as a student to university resources including state-of-the-art computer labs, library resources, volunteer opportunities, a career development team, fitness centers, athletic events and more. 

“Through our Reading CollegeTowne initiative, we are committed to the economic development of the greater Reading region,” said Alvernia University President John R. Loyack. “We are grateful for the opportunity to help the GRCA expand its mission by providing opportunities for regional businesses to develop and retain higher performing employees through our flexible, relevant and in-demand academic programs and the development of new businesses through the O’Pake Institute’s student-powered business incubator.” 

Greater Reading Chamber awarded $25k grant for downtown Reading façade improvements


The Greater Reading Chamber Alliance (GRCA) will use a $25,000 grant from the Truist Foundation to help businesses in downtown Reading improve their appearances and prepare for an expected influx of students and faculty members that will result from Alvernia University’s Reading CollegeTowne project.

CollegeTowne, which expands Alvernia’s campus into the downtown area with a goal of spurring economic development in Reading and Berks County, is based at 401 Penn Street, where a five-story building is being renovated to include classrooms and labs, student housing, retail outlets and restaurants.

The building is expected to open in late summer and begin operations with the fall semester.

“GRCA has been meeting with Alvernia University representatives and other downtown stakeholders to explore opportunities to leverage the CollegeTowne project for other investment,” said Jim Gerlach, GRCA president and CEO. “The Truist Foundation grant will help existing businesses make improvements to their storefronts for new and existing customers.”

Property and business owners interested in obtaining grant money should contact Aaron Gantz, GRCA senior director of economic development, at [email protected] or 610-898-7788.

The Truist Foundation administers grant money provided by the Truist Financial Corporation, the sixth largest U.S. bank holding company.

“We are proud to partner with the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance to support our local businesses as we work to carry out our purpose of building better lives and communities,” said Alex Brame, Central Pennsylvania region president for Tuist.

Virginia Dodge named 2021 Berks Athena Award recipient

Virginia Dodge


The Greater Reading Chamber Alliance has named Virginia Dodge, president of VA Productions, as its 2021 Athena Award recipient.

The award is given out each year to a woman as an honor for professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills.

VA Productions is a full-service video production company based in Shillington, which serves both local and multinational companies with video, audio/visual and event planning services. Dodge formed the company after she was laid off during the recession back in the 1990s.

She has been very active in the community having served as president of the local Rotary Club in 2017 and serving on the committee of the local YMCA, Leadership Berks, the Olivet Boys & Girls Club and the Reading Civic Theatre.

In 2015 she started “Princess with a Purpose,” a mentoring effort to help young girls living in the Bethany Children’s Home.

She engages the group in conversations about being brave, resourceful, honest and caring and each girl gets a mini tiara.

In her spare time she also makes custom jewelry, which she sells at craft fairs and events with the profits given to her “Gifts that Give Back” charitable fund, which is administered through the Berks County Community Foundation.

She has raised thousands of dollars through the effort.

Meeting financial goals takes a plan, Reading Chamber speaker urges

Advice for achieving financial goals and saving more money was on the menu Tuesday at the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance’s virtual Breakfast4Success event.

Millie Illas-Lockhart, business development officer of VISIONS Federal Credit Union, offered a series of tips for improving financial habits during her presentation, “New Year, New Goals: Achieving Financial Success.”

Defining financial goals, taking a realistic look at current circumstances and examining your financial habits are important steps in getting your financial house in order, Illas-Lockhart explained. So is crafting and sticking to a budget.

“A lot of people are resistant to the idea of a spending plan, but the truth is a budget is key to financial success,” she said.

Illas-Lockhart recommended using an app to streamline the process and make it easier to keep track of spending, investments, credit scores and other areas of finance.

She reminded participants to preserve records, statements and forms for an appropriate amount of time, and recommended scanning and saving copies of documents to a flash drive or using cloud-based storage.

Establishing good savings habits early on can result in big payoffs later in life, Illas-Lockhart said, and there many methods of increasing the amount of money you save. She recommended increasing contributions to a retirement account every time you get a raise, figuring regular savings into your budget and taking advantage of payday automatic deposits to a savings account.

She also spoke of creative ways to save more money, such as putting all change into a jar instead of spending it and engaging in a monthlong no-spending challenge that limits spending to necessities only.

Prior to Illas-Lockhart’s talk, three area companies were honored with GRCA’s Shining Star awards. They were Stewart Abstract of Berks County Inc., Reading Plastic Machining and Fabrication and Phoebe Berks. The awards are given to long-standing members of GRCA.

The event was sponsored by Hoffmann Publishing, Inc. WFMZ-TV and VISIONS Federal Credit Union. The next Breakfast4Success is scheduled for Wednesday, June 2, with a theme of employing strategies for overcoming just about anything your business encounters.