More than two decades after Billy Joel set the societal lament of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley to music in his song Allentown, the city, the region and the state continue their struggle to construct a lasting economic revival.

Many state residents are still waiting for the "Pennsylvania we never found" -- as Joel's song suggested back in 1982.

Why Pennsylvania remained in near economic and social stasis for the past few decades isn't easy to quantify. It had the third-slowest growth rate among states in the 1990s, which was a marked improvement over the steady loss of the 1970s and 1980s.

But researchers at the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, and at the Keystone Research Center -- think tanks located in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pa., respectively -- believe they may have found the key to the state's troubling economic puzzle, and they're sharing that information in an innovative and surprisingly visual way.

Mapping Money

As part of its established Web site, the Keystone Research Center recently added an interactive, publicly available GIS map that spatially pinpoints the disbursement of the state's millions of economic development grant and loan dollars.

Launched to coincide with the release of Brookings' lengthy economic treatise and strategy for improving the state's future, Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania, the site geographically represents major economic subsidies the state issued between July 1, 1998, and May 6, 2003.

The 1,333 business subsidies designated on the map account for incentives totaling $719.5 million -- a lot of money that might not be doing Pennsylvania as much good as it could, according to Steven Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, and Mark Muro, senior policy analyst for the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

"For whatever reason, many of these spending decisions have been nebulous and unsystematic. There's a lot of hearsay in the state about what's going on," said Muro. "I think the mapping, in many cases, shows spending is appropriate. But it also shows some problems."

One large problem, Herzenberg said, is that economic development dollars seem to fuel sprawl.

"We know one of the drivers or enablers of sprawl can be haphazard distribution of business subsidies," explained Herzenberg. "We also know business subsidies can be a tool for smart growth if you support projects in the right places."

Unfortunately after gathering an enormous amount of data, it seems Pennsylvania's subsidies tend to increase sprawl rather than enable smart growth.

Some of Keystone's most dramatic findings regarding the geographical distribution of business subsidies in Pennsylvania between 1998 and 2003 include the following:

- Statewide, older cities (inner townships), received only 26 percent of the per capita average level of economic development assistance.

- On a per capita basis, new areas (outer townships) receive 2.2 times as much in subsidies to industrial parks than older areas.

- In the five-county Philadelphia area, the four affluent suburban counties received 2.5 times as much as the city in grant dollars to promote economic development.

- Older townships and inner suburbs, which account for 12 percent of the state's population, receive just 4 percent of state subsidy dollars to help ward off job and population loss.

- Within the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and Philadelphia areas, outer townships receive nearly 50 percent more subsidy dollars per capita than older Pennsylvania.

Exodus to Suburbia

Sprawl has been a festering thorn in the sides of environmentalists, economists, educators and urban communities in general since post-World War II families decided the American dream packed up its urban promise and hightailed it into the suburbs.

Newly established federal Veterans Affairs and Federal Housing Administration loans added fuel to the post-war

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer