Panel pushes economic development in county

Rick Shrum

Economic development has become a major development in Washington County, and was the focus of an enlightening panel discussion Friday morning.

“We want to do everything we can to draw companies. We want to get the message out that Washington County is here, it’s thriving and we want you to come here,” Will Thomeier, director of economic and tourism development for the county Chamber of Commerce, said during the 75-minute exchange of viewpoints among four local experts.

The early-morning event, at the Hilton Garden Inn Southpointe, kicked off the latest series of monthly Breakfast Briefings organized by the chamber. Thomeier was joined on the panel by Bill McGowen, executive director of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority; Ben Brown, chief executive officer of the Mon Valley Alliance; and Jeff Nobili, IT program manager of the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board. Chamber president Jeff Kotula was the moderator.

McGowen elaborated on more than a half-dozen projects his authority is overseeing, some of which involve brownfields and are supported by grants from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

The Brockway Glass project, in Canton Township and visible from Interstate 70, is among those that fall into both categories. It is an ambitious $15 million endeavor that is in the demolition stage, where structures at the long-dormant site are being demolished to clear the way for future use.

Assuring public access to sites is a vital element of redevelopment, said McGowen, who stressed the need for vital infrastructure like sewage, an issue facing the Zediker Station project off Route 136 in Eighty Four.

“The key is getting private and public partnerships. We need to get municipal, county and state governments involved,” said McGowen, who is a staunch advocate of RACP and the county’s Local Share Account program, which have boosted development.

Brown discussed continued development of Alta Vista Business Park in Fallowfield Township, and work at Donora Industrial Park and the former steel mill site in Allenport. He also lamented the issue of blight, which is common in parts of the Valley.

“In an older area, you can have blight,” Brown said. “It impacts an entire area. We’ve been fighting blight, but we get some pushback.”

He likewise touted the benefits of the LSA, funds from revenue generated at the Meadows Casino.

“LSA has been a huge blessing for our area of the Valley,” he said. “The mills and factories that have closed is what a lot of people think of the Valley, but we’ve had some huge changes there. We can reinvent towns.

“The history of the Mon Valley is important, but not as important as the future.”

As a workforce development board official, Nobili’s duties are clear. The Southwest board – which is linked to CareerLink offices in Washington, Donora, Waynesburg and Monaca – is involved in a number of employment-related initiatives, including apprenticeship programs. “We’re big on apprenticeships,” he said.

One big issue his board encounters is “we hear ‘there is no one to hire’ or ‘no one who wants to work.’ We want to change that perception.”

That perception likely deals with age discrimination, a practice that employers vehemently deny, but which exists. Nobili invoked a set of figures indicating that ageism still prospers.

He said that of a sample of 10,000 visitors to CareerLink, 30% of them were 50 and older.

“See where the conclusion that ‘there is no one to hire’ comes,” Nobili said. “Employers don’t want to take a chance on someone 50 or older. Employers should look at experience as being valuable.”

Economic development is an ongoing process, of course, one that should be vigorously pursued in a region that was once heavily industrial. Looking ahead, McGowen glanced at the Garden Inn audience, but actually was speaking to an entire county when he said: “We want you to be economic development advocates. We need more of this.”