Seven officials envision what's ahead for Washington, Greene

Rick Shrum
Observer Reporter

He was a French physician who insisted he could predict the future, and even published a book of prognostications more than a half-century after Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Nostradamus issued predictions centuries ahead, for specific years, at a time without factoring in what he couldn’t foresee: an ongoing technology boom, climate change and reality TV. We wanted to ask what 2019 had in store for this region, but he was unavailable for comment. The man died 452 years ago.

Seven officials who serve Washington and Greene counties in some capacity, however, did share their perspectives on what may occur in these parts over the next 12 months. They discussed the rebirth of the oil and natural gas industry, development of infrastructure to support the Beaver County ethane cracker plant, local business projects, highways and more – all with large measures of hope.

Those seven may prove to be more prescient than Nostradamus, rendering him a post-medieval blowhard.

Larry Maggi

The chairman of the Washington County commissioners is optimistic about a number of prospects. But he is especially energized by energy.

“I think next year will be great for that sector,” he said. “One problem is the transmission of (natural gas) with the pipeline issues. But we now have a market for that product and demand will grow because of the cracker plant (being built in Beaver County).”

Energy companies and firms from other sectors apparently are interested in the former Allenport steel mill site, according to Maggi. He said he was pleasantly surprised to find out that four national companies scouting out real estate opportunities included that Mon Valley location on their final lists.

“That hit like a lightning bolt. We’re competing with the rest of the country and (Allenport) is in the top three in four national searches.”

He also is upbeat about improvements to Interstates 70 and 79; RCAP grants that will benefit industrial parks, including the previously dormant Cool Valley project; two companies planning relocations to Alta Vista Business Park in Fallowfield Township; and the long-term plans to develop the Zediker Station property off I-70 near Eighty Four.

“We are growing. We have one of lowest tax rates and lots of quality-of-life things, a lot of green spaces that families are looking for. But our biggest challenge is to grow smart. We don’t want to become a concrete jungle. We don’t want to lose that country charm we have. If we do, there will be a lot of concrete.”

Blair Zimmerman

“We see some good things happening not only in 2019, but for the next two or three years,” said Zimmerman, a Greene County commissioner.

Some of those good things are health-care related, including WVU Medicine’s construction of a clinic in Franklin Township, adjacent to Walmart. The clinic is expected to open in 2019 and employ around 100.

And about a month ago, Greenbriar Treatment Center opened a long-term residential substance abuse treatment program at WHS-Greene hospital in Waynesburg. This is a first-of-its-kind program in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Zimmerman said job creation is a priority, and along those lines, he plans to travel to San Antonio in March for discussions on that. Zimmerman will be accompanied by Dennis Davin, secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

“If jobs are created, things may snowball and developers will build homes and some infrastructure,” the commissioner said.

Oil and gas are certainly part of the equation, Zimmerman said, especially with the ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County. And he said he believes an old friend to the region – the coal industry – “is holding its own. I think it’s going to be around for a while.”

Zimmerman added that the county “is getting close” on its comprehensive plan, a 10-year framework required by the state and due in a few months.

Chris Whitlatch

Acknowledging that “there still are struggles in the Valley,” the chief executive officer of Mon Valley Alliance is nonetheless optimistic.

“I’m really encouraged about 2019,” he said. “I think 2018 was very successful. Several government grants were made to companies to expand, and I’m excited to see those plans taking place.”

Whitlatch was buoyed by the recent commitments by Nine Energy Service and Apex International to relocate to Alta Vista. “We look for continued activity in that park and others in Washington County. As for oil and gas, we’re seeing a definite growth in downstream industries – and not only in the Valley.

“You never like (an economic) downturn, but if you’re looking at a silver lining from the most recent one, it’s that it gave Western Pennsylvania time to build infrastructure (for) service companies downstream (from the Shell cracker plant).”

Promising signs that a cracker facility also may be constructed in Belmont County, Ohio, further boosts Whitlatch’s hopes. “What’s most interesting is that the Valley is about 70 miles from Belmont and 70 from Beaver. I think we could sees activity in our area because of both facilities.”

Robbie Matesic

The executive director of Greene County Department of Economic Development is likewise upbeat about 2019. And her optimism is fueled by natural gas.

“This is about moving forward as quickly as we possibly can to promote counties and sites, because the utilization of natural gas is real,” said Matesic, who is involved with the Tri-State Shale Coalition, a group of officials from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio who are working together on energy initiatives.

“Natural gas is the biggest game changer, and everybody in the tri-state should collaborate on this. I know the Greene County commissioners are all in.

“This is absolutely the dominating, No. 1 priority. We need to be as responsive as we can, as collaborative as we can, as fast as we can and as fearless as we can. This is a global market we’re in now.”

Like Zimmerman, Matesic also touted construction of the WVU Medicine facility in Greene.

Don Chappel

Talking with students and older residents about Greene County’s 10-year comprehensive plan has Chappel fired up.

“It gives me renewed enthusiasm,” said the longtime executive director of Greene County Industrial Developments Inc. “It’s energized me on what we could accomplish. People are looking forward to what will come out of the plan.”

While expressing support for operations at WHS-Greene hospital, Chappel also is a staunch supporter of the WVU Medicine clinic being built in the county, which he called “a real coup.”

“That could spark a number of associated businesses – additional doctors’ offices, additional medical equipment offices.”

He said his organization “is working on developing another business park. We have three lots in Evergreene Park where we’re actively attempting to develop plans.

“We’d like to grow manufacturing in county,” Chappel added. “That’s one of my goals.”

Jeff Kotula

The president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce is bullish on the energy industry – and more.

“I also foresee ... advanced manufacturing, financial services, health care, education and tourism increasing their positions as significant drivers in our local economy. These growing industries are also bolstered by our county’s low taxes, infrastructure investments and high quality of life, making an attractive business environment for both companies and our residents. I certainly expect that trend to continue.”

Kotula believes the county will continue its trend to embrace diversity in industry because it has worked well. Why change?

“Our strategy over the past 20 years has been to reduce our reliance on one or two major industry sectors and concentrate on growing and attracting companies from a variety of sectors. This strategy has enabled us to withstand downturns in the national economy and encourage business investment across the county.

“For instance, this past year we welcomed Nine Energy to Alta Vista Business Park, Tech Met and Retal to Donora and Penn National Gaming as the new owner of The Meadows Casino. These companies represent our emphasis on the diversification of our economy and the success it has achieved for our local communities for investment and jobs.”

Dave Spigelmyer

The president of Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents about 200 natural gas-related companies, spoke specifically about that resource. And why not? He believes in it, and said natural gas is a powerful and plentiful resource in Washington and Greene counties.

“Pennsylvania is approaching 25 percent of the nation’s production. More than one-third of our power generation is from natural gas. We’ve gone from a level of cautious optimism to a bit of an energy renaissance.

“I think over time, we’ll see new investment in manufacturing plants across the region.”

Referring to the southwest corner of the state, he said, “The greatest concentration of rig activity is in Greene. And Washington County is playing an enormous role in the cracker. Without the support of Washington County, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio, that facility doesn’t get built.”