The Indiana County Chamber of Commerce held its monthly board of directors meeting on Thursday virtually on Zoom.
The board discussed a number of issues, including Indiana County Ready, the reopening of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the impact of COVID-19.
Chamber President Mark Hilliard began his update by discussing an upcoming webinar the chamber is hosting for Indiana County teachers next Thursday. The webinar, titled “Interweaving Employability Skills Into Classroom Culture,” will help teachers find new ways to reinforce essential skills in the physical and virtual classrooms and provide more real-world applications for these skills.
“This webinar is a complement to our Indiana County Ready program,” Hilliard said. “We want to make sure to place an emphasis on essential skills that are required for virtual work as well because many students will at least begin the year doing virtual learning.”
The free webinar is open to all teachers in the county with the registration link being shared by each school district. For more information or to register, contact the chamber office.
The chamber’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast will be held on Sept. 4 at the Indiana Country Club. The event allows attendees to submit questions to state legislators who represent Indiana County. Hilliard said that even though the event will be held outdoors under a tent, a lot of thought and preparation went into the decision.
“We have had numerous conversations with our state legislators and felt that it was still important to hold this event in person, provided that we can do it safely,” Hilliard said. “We are pleased that this event will follow all health and safety guidelines, allow for people to have the face-to-face interaction with our legislators, and still offer a virtual option for those unable to attend.”
He said the event will be streamed live on Facebook and those viewers will also have the ability to submit questions to the legislators.
To wrap up the chamber report, Hilliard reminded everyone of the inaugural chamber golf outing on Sept. 24 at Chestnut Ridge Golf and Conference Center in Blairsville.
“We are very excited about the golf outing,” Hilliard said. “We have taken steps to ensure that it will be safe, affordable and a lot of fun.”
Indiana County Commissioner Robin Gorman began the local report by commenting that the commissioners are hard at work at ensuring that the $7.5 million the county has received from the CARES Act is put to good use.
“We are going out to everyone with financial needs and encouraging them to put in their submissions for this funding,” Gorman said. “We are looking through all options at what is allowable as we only have until December 30.”
Gorman also discussed the status of the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, created by the commissioners and made up of partners including the Emergency Management Agency, Indiana Regional Medical Center, local human service agencies, and other community organizations. She said other organizations such as local townships and boroughs are now being brought into the group, but that the primary goal is still to distribute the proper information.
“Everyone wants accurate information. Unfortunately, there are far too many outlets providing false or misleading information. We need to guide our residents safely and effectively with the proper information and the right message as we are all in this together.”
The COVID Task Force is currently beginning the process of hiring a public relations firm to help deliver this message, she said.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Dr. Michael Driscoll began his education update by introducing Dr. Geofrey Mills, the new dean of Eberly College of Business and Education Technology. Mills said that with his background in economics as well as in economic and community development, he is looking forward to working with the chamber.
“I am very impressed with this region and this community,” Mills said. “I feel we can do great things together and I am anxious to start this partnership.”
Driscoll then discussed the university’s new, rebalanced plan to reopen.
“The plan is to have fewer students here,” Driscoll said, “but still bring those groups back that need face-to-face instruction to learn most effectively as that is still a primary goal.”
The initial plan will likely only see a third of the students back face-to-face with freshmen making up a large part of that group. Move-in weekend began this weekend for freshmen who were unable to take part in summer orientation. Driscoll said there are no easy decisions right now when it comes to how best to reopen.
“Fewer students certainly help to buffer the negative impacts of COVID-19 in our area, but that also means fewer students to foster positive interactions with our community and local businesses,” he said.
The full reopening plan for IUP can be found at www.iup.edu. Driscoll concluded his report by saying that the university is concerned with what the pandemic has done to financial position of local landlords.
“We were able to use CARES Act money in the spring to help with their burden, but those dollars are not available for the fall,” Driscoll said. “We are, however, looking at other options to help these individuals out.”
Indiana Mall Manager Sherry Renosky regretted to inform the board that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Pittsburgh-based Bradley Books to close all 10 of its locations by the end of the year, including the one located in the Indiana Mall.
“It was disappointing news to be sure,” Renosky said. “However, everything else is status quo as we keep our eye towards the end of the year and the holiday season.”
Renosky said the mall’s effort to bring in food trucks has been an extremely positive one and that she is happy to bring a little piece of the canceled Indiana County Fair back to Indiana.
Josh Rosenberger of the 700 Shop said that although it is a challenging time for businesses in region, he sees some positives with area small businesses.
“Some of these small businesses have found ways to forge ahead in large part because of the attention that we are able to offer to our customers, which is something that they cannot get online or at a big box store,” he said.
Mary Beth Akbay, owner of Romeo’s Pizza and Mediterranean Kitchen in Indiana, agreed and stated that most of the restaurants in the area that she is aware of will make it through this difficult time.
“It is difficult because the rules keep changing seemingly every day,” Akbay said. “Most restaurants I have spoken to feel they will still make it through this despite the challenges.”
Akbay said Romeo’s will reopen their dining room to coincide with IUP’s reopening. To conclude the retail report, Steve Drahnak of S&T Bank said it is still a very uncertain time from a financial perspective.
“There are certain industries that are significantly impacted while others have been strong,” Drahnak said. “The banking industry continues to plan while keeping an eye on everything going on in the country to see what will happen next.”
Indiana Regional Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Wendy Haislip began the health care report by saying that the hospital is keeping its focus on decreasing the spread of the coronavirus.
“Our overall numbers of positive cases are still very small and very manageable,” Haislip said. “We are still working with our COVID Task Force Team on a daily basis, though, to prepare in case that would change.”
Haislip stated that the hospital has a dedicated COVID unit with specially trained staff to take care of any patients who would require hospitalization. She concluded her report by saying that the hospital continues to balance the management of COVID with the other initiatives that IRMC wants to work on for the future.
Byron Stauffer Jr., executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, said the Indiana County commissioners recently applied for $1.23 million for recapitalization of the county’s revolving loan fund and he was pleased to share that the county’s application has been approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce — Economic Development Administration.
The county’s RLF program is up and running and can accept loan applications for working capital needs of up to $50,000 and in some cases up to $100,000. The application process has been streamlined, with low-interest rates and fees and minimal collateral requirements. He also said his office is currently hard at work providing a response to small businesses through the COVID-19 PA Small Business Assistance Grant program. The second window for applications opened on Monday and will remain open through Aug. 28.
Additionally, Stauffer mentioned the Big Idea Contest being offered by the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and in partnership with the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations. The Big Idea Contest is looking for tech innovators, small manufacturers or entrepreneurs who are developing new products, processes, or software applications, etc. Prizes includes up to $50,000, mentoring and consultation services. The rules and entry form can be found at www.BIGIDEA.BenFranklin.org.
Stauffer concluded his report by stating that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of concern for an accurate U.S. Census count and encouraged residents to self-respond due to the fact that federal and state funds are based on formulas dependent on the census.
“We have essentially lost a month of the door-to-door efforts,” Stauffer stated. “With the students leaving school early and being off campus most of this time, that has created some challenges.”
Stauffer said his office is attempting to work with the Census Bureau on additional options to help the county get an accurate count as the focus right now is on the student population as well as entitlement communities.
“There are real, significant impacts that can occur from a decrease in population numbers and this can negatively affect many municipalities throughout our county that could result in lost grant funding,” Stauffer said.
Linda Gwinn with the Blairsville Community Development Authority informed the board that there is entertainment coming to Blairsville over the next month. The National Guard Rock Ensemble will be playing outdoors at the Veteran’s Memorial Park Amphitheater on Aug. 22, and the classic rock group Boomers will be playing Sept. 5. Food and drink trucks and Kona Ice will be on hand.
Rob Walbeck of the Homer City Area Business Association said the Homer City community finally seems to be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Fox’s Pizza just reopened in Homer City, and the Homer City Fire Department has had great success with Food Truck Fridays,” Walbeck said. “So things are beginning to pick up.”
The board will meet next on Sept. 17 at the Indiana Country Club.