If The Dickinson School of Law packs up its legal pads and moves north to State College, Carlisle won't fall off the map. Local economic experts and community leaders said the town's ability to weather dramatic changes over the years leaves them optimistic in the face of that potential loss.
Carlisle no longer depends on downtown factories. And, it remains the governing seat of prosperous Cumberland County and a thriving crossroads for commerce, they said.
"There are pieces that are coming together in an interesting way that will have Carlisle going in the exact opposite direction of down the tubes," said Rusty Shunk, president of the Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce.
Pennsylvania State University, the school's parent institution, has offered to build Dickinson a $60 million facility at University Park, according to a memo reportedly sent to Dickinson's board of governors by law school Dean Philip McConnaughay.
Boxed in by homes and Dickinson College, the law school's only options for local expansion are developing satellite classrooms or a new Carlisle campus. The two Dickinson schools are not affiliated.
Despite its prominence in the community, the law school is not an economic linchpin, local leaders said.
"Carlisle has a lot going for it. Even if the law school would leave, it still will have a lot going for it. Our efforts have been considerable to not have all our eggs in one basket in terms of economic development," said Christopher Gulotta, executive director of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment authorities.
Nonetheless, they said, the 169-year-old Dickinson law school would be missed.
Last night, the Carlisle Borough Council unanimously approved a resolution urging the law school to stay.
Council President Steven Fishman, a Dickinson law school graduate, said the town was given assurances six years ago when the law school merged with Penn State that it would not leave without ?a compelling reason.??
"We wonder what that compelling reason is. It certainly has not been put forth, unless dangling a $60 million carrot is a compelling reason," Fishman said.
William Bellinger, a Dickinson College economics professor, estimated that moving the law school from Carlisle would eliminate 227 jobs, about 150 of them in Carlisle. He estimated the law school's net 2002-03 spending in the county at $20 million and in the Carlisle area at $10.6 million. "It's significant and it's negative, but I don't think it's the most important dimension," he said.
Bellinger said the loss of contributions made by law school faculty and their families to educational, cultural and service organizations could be the greatest blow.
Law students and plenty of alumni cite a practical reason for keeping Dickinson in Carlisle: the number of law office internships available in local, county, state and federal law offices in the midstate.
However, Dickinson could shift focus from hands-on law lessons to laboratory work.
In an essay he wrote about the law school's 1997 merger with Penn State, McConnaughay argues that as law and science converge in today's courtrooms, future lawyers should be exposed to a top research setting, such as the University Park campus.
The Penn State offer prompted Carlisle Mayor Kirk Wilson to send a memo to Gov. Ed Rendell yesterday.
"I question Penn State's need for state funds if they can use $60 million of their own money to bribe the board of governors of The Dickinson School of Law to move it out of Carlisle," Wilson said.
Cumberland County Commissioner Earl Keller, a former Carlisle councilman and a lifelong Carlisle resident, said the loss of the law school would be devastating.
Still, he said, Carlisle would adapt, just as it did with the demise of the crystal and shoe industries that once dominated its economy.
"Carlisle is resilient enough," said Keller, 67. "I don't want to see us have to make that decision, though."