The Indiana County Chamber of Commerce held its monthly board of directors meeting on Thursday at the Indiana Country Club.
The board discussed issues including the Women’s Summit, workforce programs, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and more.
Chamber President Mark Hilliard said the first Indiana Women’s Summit was a big success.
“We had a fantastic keynote speaker and some amazing panels,” Hilliard said. “The feedback has been wonderful so far, and it was through the hard work of a number of individuals that the event was so successful.”
The event featured keynote speaker Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, as well as panels covering theses topics: health and happiness, safety and security, and career and community. This year’s event at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex was sold out, and Hilliard said the board is looking to grow it even more for next year.
In addition, Hilliard updated the board on the Indiana County Ready soft skills program that was presented to all of the county high schools in September.
“We are waiting on a couple of final numbers to get a true count,” Hilliard said. “But we can safely say that we are looking at over 400 Indiana County juniors and seniors being enrolled in this program for the first year, which is fantastic.” He said that assisting local businesses with their workforce needs will be a key issue of the chamber moving forward.
Indiana County Commissioner Rod Ruddock said discussions are underway regarding the county budget for the next fiscal year. Ruddock said that although the process is never easy, he is hopeful that it will be a positive one for the upcoming year.
Ruddock provided an update for the new office of the Indiana County Conservation District. The county commissioners recently voted to table the bids for the project until a few additional issues are addressed.
Ruddock said he does feel that the project will continue to move forward soon.
Rural broadband continues to be an issue that is high on the commissioners’ list. Ruddock informed the board about a plan to improve cellular service around the area of Blue Spruce Park.
“We have to find a way to do things in a smart way while in control of our finances,” he said. “The important thing is to continue to chip away at the problem so that our county residents are all served.”
State Sen. Joe Pittman updated the board on Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent announcement to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which would set a price and cap on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The executive order was made without the involvement of the general assembly.
“The coal and waste power plants in this area employ close to 800 people at a salary well above the statewide average,” Pittman said. “I am deeply disappointed in what I feel is an unnecessary and expensive trading scheme that will negatively impact these hard-working men and women and their families.”
State Rep. Jim Struzzi echoed Pittman and said that they both are currently working on legislation that would prevent the governor from moving forward with the plan without legislative approval.
“This would be severely detrimental to our local and regional economy and would be extremely harmful to the coal industry, manufacturing and our local communities,” Struzzi said. “That is why Senator Pittman and I are doing everything that we can to prevent this.”
State Rep. Cris Dush added that this is not simply an issue that will affect businesses in the community.
“This initiative would not only result in these businesses having to pay,” Dush said. “Many of the area school districts will end up having to pay more, and consumers will end up paying more.”
The legislators urged the chamber board and the county to become more involved in the issue.
Wednesday marked the ribbon-cutting of Urban Outfitters in White Township.
Pittman said that it was gratifying to see the result of so many years of hard work from a number of individuals and organizations in the area.
“We now have an obligation to build on this achievement,” Pittman said.
“This is an opportunity to have a hub not just in the Windy Ridge Business Park but in our community and we really need to take advantage of it.”
Dush agreed, saying that everyone needs to work to continue to bring jobs back into the area.
“Success follows success,” Dush said. “For years we have exported too many employees with that strong western Pennsylvania work ethic, and now it’s time to bring them back.”
In other business, Struzzi said he is looking forward to going back into session next week in order to move legislation that would help volunteer firefighters in the state through a tuition assistance program. The proposed legislation could allow firefighters to lower their tuition for post-secondary education depending on the amount of volunteer years they have put in.
Struzzi also reminded the board about the Senior Expo on Oct. 24 at S&T Arena, where he will be partnering with Pittman and Dush on the event.
ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 Executive Director Jim Wagner updated the board on the teacher in the workplan program run by the Workforce Investment Board. Wagner said that this year they have run into a few challenges with the program that is designed to get more local teachers into area businesses in an effort to learn and educate their students about them. Wagner said he hopes that they are able to work through the challenges and get the program back to the level of prior years soon.
ARIN IU 28 will no longer be offering fingerprinting services as of Jan. 1. Wagner said the state is continuing to look for a new location for these services in Indiana County, but currently they have not found one.
Dave Brocious from Sky Point Crane provided the board with an update on commodities by reporting that the price of natural gas has dropped to a nationwide average of $2.30 per MCF, while the regional price of natural gas in Pennsylvania has dropped well below $1 per MCF. This has created more downward pressure on the industry to cut costs. Brocious said this has led to workforce reductions as well as the reduction in rig counts and is creating many challenges in the energy market.
In other industry-related news, Brocious informed the board that ExxonMobil has recently visited Beaver County with an interest in potentially building a new petrochemical plant.
“This could be huge for our region,” Brocious said.
Byron Stauffer Jr. executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, updated the board on the Hoodlebug Trail expansion project. Stauffer explained that construction is currently underway on the corner of Eighth and Church streets, which is where a new bike station will eventually be housed. The project will connect Indiana Borough at the Eighth Street parking lot through the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus and to the existing Hoodlebug Trail along 13th Street.
This ties into work previously completed by White Township to cross over Rose Street. Stauffer stated that he anticipates the project to be completed before the end of the year.
In related news, Stauffer informed the board that the Burrell Township supervisors recently rejected the site plan (SALDO application) for a proposed bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists over Route 22 east of Blairsville. The county is working to address the township’s comments.
In addition, Stauffer commented that development of the next Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) continues in an effort to begin developing a set of projects for the next four years in collaboration with PennDOT District 10 and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. Stauffer indicated that another Public Participation Panel will be scheduled soon.
The Pennsylvania Economic Development Association’s annual conference will be coming to Indiana next week. Stauffer informed the board that approximately 150 economic development professionals from across the state will be at the Kovalchick Complex from Oct. 21 to 23, hearing a variety of speakers and panels.
In addition, Stauffer mentioned on behalf of the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations that his office is working with several companies that are considering Indiana County for investment or expansion, which could lead to new job opportunities for our residents and the region. Stauffer stated that discussions are ongoing for multiple locations throughout the county.
Stauffer, on behalf of Indiana County Development Corporation President Jim Wiley, thanked everyone who was a part of the URBN Outfitters ribbon-cutting last week.
“We are very happy with the success of Urban, but this is only a part of our comprehensive approach to ensuring that all of our area businesses have their workforce needs met,” Stauffer said.
He also updated the board on development activities at the 119 Business Park, the Corporate Campus, HighPointe at Indian Springs and at NORMA Pennsylvania.
Steve McPherson of MGK Technologies said that manufacturing continues to do well in Indiana County. He mentioned that while companies are still looking for additional employees during the fall season, they are now looking for more specific positions.
Upcoming chamber member events include:
• Chamber Check-In, Oct. 29
• Business After Hours at Luther Ford-Lincoln, Nov. 6
• Chamber of Commerce annual luncheon at KCAC, Dec. 4
The chamber will meet next on Nov. 14 at the Indiana Country Club.