Commissioners in an optimistic state about economy

Rick Shrum

Jeff Kotula established the tenor of the morning Zoom at the start.

“2020 was a challenging year in the Washington County business community, but we saw optimistic signs,” the president of the county Chamber of Commerce intoned during his introduction to a virtual audience.

The upbeat tone continued, and why not. Vaccines are being dispensed, infections are down and spring is ready to spring forth. There is hope amid the pandemic.

“Washington County: State of the Economy” kicked off Thursday with the three county commissioners – Diana Irey Vaughan, Larry Maggi and Nick Sherman – expressing a mostly positive outlook for the future. This is the ninth consecutive year the chamber has organized the event, which is running virtual for the first time, and in three webinars for the first time – to be continued next Thursday.

The commissioners, and Kotula, engaged in a roundtable discussion – make that rectangular-image discussion – about a variety of economic dynamics as they pertain to the county. They included: small business challenges, the oil and gas industry, economic development, county Local Share Account benefits, financial programs and inspirational stories.

Even the long-awaited Cool Valley project was a talking point.

Among those optimistic signs during the past year: the county undertook 73 large economic-development projects for a capital investment of $281 million-plus; more than $6.6 million was allocated through the LSA via gaming revenues at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, despite two lengthy pandemic-related shutdowns of the facility; LSA projects leveraged $31.1 million in public and private resources; and, through various relief programs, county businesses got $493.2 million through 3,147 grants or loans.

Even the flagging oil and gas industry, beset by low commodity prices and tamped down by the pandemic, provided a boost.

Irey Vaughan, the commissioners chair, pointed out that the county received $6.6 million in impact fees in 2019, the last year Act 13 money was disbursed. That was more than any of Pennsylvania’s other 66 counties got. Washington County’s municipalities netted an additional $11.5 million, with the combined $18.1 million also being tops in the state.

“We’re hearing that the oil and gas industry is sustainable and will improve,” she said. “This industry has enabled us to keep taxes low, make improvements to the 911 system and for IT functions.”

“We will always need gas,” said Sherman, a Republican along with Vaughan. He, however, doesn’t believe the county should rely on only a few industries.

“Diversifying our economy while working with the natural gas industry is a key. What will be the next big industry locating here? We also see a blessing of future importance in getting people back to work and teachers getting the vaccine.”

Three priorities for recovery, according to Maggi, a Democrat, is to take care of “vaccines, people and businesses. We have to make sure that happens. We need consumer confidence.”

Cool Valley is one project that has not happened – or even been started. It is a mixed-use industrial and commercial park that was proposed in the spring of 2010. The property is in Cecil Township, between Interstate 79 and Morganza Road, near Southpointe.

Irey Vaughan, however, said “we’re close to phase I.” The hangups, she explained, are a “six-inch bridge” issue with the state Department of Transportation and a matter with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“We’re hoping this happens within six months. We have a (potential) user that wants space.”

Kotula closed the program by asking the commissioners what has inspired them during the deadly outbreak. Maggi commended dedicated employees at hospitals, convenience stores and even doughnut shops. Irey Vaughan cited workers in numerous industries who, she said, showed “we have a lot to be hopeful for.” Sherman praised parents who have toiled at home, working their jobs while home-schooling or overseeing the education of their children.

“So many people have had to do so much,” he said. “My wife and so many others have had to step up. They do remarkable things that often aren’t seen.”

It was an upbeat ending to an upbeat morning, which was underscored by a Maggi prediction.

“We’re going to come out of this and position ourselves well,” the longtime commissioner said.

Part two will begin at 8 a.m. next Thursday, featuring two independent health-care CEOs: Louis J. Panza Jr. of Monongahela Valley Hospital and Brook Ward of Washington Health System.

John Montgomery, CEO of Community Bank, and Joel L. Naroff, president of Naroff Economics LLC, will speak at the final presentation on March 25.