MVA CEO: Mon Valley poised for economic, community growth

Michael Bradwell

As chief executive officer for the Mon Valley Alliance, Chris Whitlatch isn’t just a cheerleader for the Mon Valley. He’s also charged with putting the means in place for an area he says is ripe for economic and community revival.

“We believe we are poised for growth,” Whitlatch, 43, told the Washington County Chamber of Commerce Friday at its breakfast meeting at The Golf Club of Washington.

The Mon Valley represents a large swath of area and population, which for Whitlatch’s year-old organization, stretches from the eastern half of Washington County to the edges of Fayette and Allegheny counties.

Charleroi-based MVA was created in April 2016 through a merger of two longtime and successful economic development organizations, each with a 50-year history: the Middle Monongahela Industrial Development Association, which focused on industrial parks, and the Mon Valley Initiative, which focused on transportation, namely the Mon Valley Expressway.

Because of the work of the predecessor organizations, infrastructure already exists in a variety of ways.

“We have the infrastructure for development through river, rail and roads,” Whitlatch said, adding that he also has space for businesses to access, including 80 acres of pad-ready sites at the Alta Vista Industrial Park near Bentleyville, as well as at the Mon River Industrial Park, the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel plant site in Allenport.

While stating that the latter site has rail, river and road infrastructure to attract industry, he acknowledged that it now needs to be divided into usable spaces for businesses of varying sizes.

The other challenge is the area’s workforce, which Whitlatch said is known for its “grit” and reliability, but needs more preparation for today’s job market.

“I keep telling people the jobs are coming,” he said, referencing the Shell ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, as well as another proposed cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, and the wave effect they’re expected to create with associated petrochemical and plastics manufacturing across Western Pennsylvania.

But when he and others at MVA assessed whether the workforce was ready for those jobs, “the answer was no.”

As a result, one of the initiatives Whitlatch undertook is a series of funds that include one for workforce readiness.

There has been some good news recently for the Valley in terms of new business.

During 2016, Tech-Met, a chemical milling service provider; plastics maker Retal; and Barchemy, a maker of nutrition bars, committed to tenancy in Donora Industrial Park, and all are in the process of moving in there.

Community commitment

The other main mission of MVA is a focus on communities.

The organization has released a series of crowdfunding opportunities to help communities raise money for specific projects.

In the meantime, MVA is initially focused on making improvements in Charleroi, taking down the former Atlas building and removing two other blighted properties to create a park at the entrance to the riverfront, Whitlatch said.

It’s also determining a future use for the former Coyle Theatre in town, he added.

In addition to attracting new business related to the ongoing cracker developments, MVA is moving to create small-business opportunities.

It created an incubation initiative, a “hub and spoke” concept that places California University’s Center for Innovation as the hub, with spokes leading to the various communities. Whitlatch said plans are in the works for the college’s center to move off campus to an undetermined location to be more accessible to residents.

The incubation initiative received a jump-start earlier this year when Community Bank contributed its former bank annex on Donner Avenue in Monessen to be used as City Hall. As part of the donation, one large room in the annex will be designated as the Community Bank Innovation Center, where local businesses can meet and share ideas.

He said local Rotary chapters will provide mentoring to start-ups, assisting with financial and legal questions.

Noting that the Valley is made up of “a lot of small communities,” Whitlatch said MVA also is restarting a Council on Governments it hopes will open lines of communication among the various municipalities to talk about possible collaborations and cost-savings.

“We’d like to get our governments to talk with each other,” he said.