Suburban leaders will gather for a groundbreaking summit today to discuss how they can unite as citizens of something greater than their own boroughs and townships.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project Summit today at Bryn Mawr College is expected to draw up to 400 leaders from Delaware, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties.

The First Suburbs Project was founded in the summer of 2006 in response to the continuing hardships that Philadelphia's so-called "first suburbs" - closest to the city - have experienced as a result of urban sprawl.

According to project organizer Jonathan Schmidt, a "first suburb" is an older, developed suburb experiencing increasing stress because of a loss of investment and population to newer, developing suburban communities.

"As a result of the changing demographics and the loss of businesses and commercial corridors, tax stresses are very high in the first suburbs," Schmidt explained. "They have increasing tax rates that are generating less and less revenue for services."

As people depart the first suburbs for greener pastures, the money and the industry they brought with them often leaves too, according to David Rusk, a leading consultant on urban and suburban policy and a featured speaker at today's summit.

"If you go back a number of decades the so-called first-class townships were riding high," he said. "Well-off people lived there and new jobs were being created. With constant sprawl, their day in the sun is dimmed and the development is occurring elsewhere."

While Rusk said it's a "fairly typical" pattern across the country, he said Pennsylvania's "archaic" way of land management - leaving municipalities to fend for themselves instead of working together as a cohesive unit - is a recipe for disaster.

"You are the most governmentally fragmented state in the country," Rusk said. "In Pennsylvania you have laws that say municipalities can get together to do whatever they want to, but that rarely happens because it's by choice and the neighbor that is well off sees little reason to work with his neighbor who is less well off."

What needs to be changed are the rules of the game, he said. Rusk realizes that Pennsylvania will probably have more than 2,500 municipalities "until the second coming," but the key is getting everyone on the same page and passing legislation that allows for governance beyond a solely municipal level.

"I suspect there are very few people in the Philadelphia area who do everything within the boundaries of one municipality," he said. "In other parts of the country, government is largely organized to reflect that."

As suburban leaders gather at today's summit, Schmidt looks forward to identifying the issues that resonate throughout their communities.

"So far, the response has been amazing," he said. "Just to sit down with people, it's been refreshing to see the reactions to the knowledge that it's not their community that is the problem. When we gather people from across these communities, you can start to see that they might be able to have a greater impact as a whole on the way these challenges manifest themselves on a local level."

Jacquelynn Puriefoy-Brinkley, project co-chair and Yeadon Borough councilwoman, said it's empowering to hear the same issues come up again and again in different municipalities.

"We all have been working in isolation," she said. "Now we have this collection of municipalities working together and I think we have a chance at success. These first suburbs have so many problems that they have seemed intractable until now. But now, there is hope." *