Chamber of commerce hears economic updates
The Indiana County Chamber of Commerce held its monthly board meeting Thursday at St. Andrew’s Village.
The board discussed many issues including business inquiries and expansions, education, energy, promotion and recent events. There was positive news on many levels that bodes well for Indiana County’s economic future.
Chamber President Jim Struzzi said the chamber added five new members and had 33 renewals in February, bringing the membership to 672 members. Unfortunately, the chamber lost several members in February due to economic reasons. While the chamber is based on membership and works hard to promote its members, it also exists to support all Indiana County businesses, Struzzi said. To that end, he encouraged businesses that may be struggling to contact the chamber.
With the chamber’s help, Gatti Pharmacy held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a daylong celebration followed by a Chamber Business After Hours at its new location at 1024 Philadelphia St. in Indiana. As a new feature, the chamber is creating promotional videos for businesses that host business after hours events. Videos from previous events can be also found on the chamber’s YouTube channel and social media.
The February Chamber Check-In at the chamber office was well-attended, including many new members and first-time visitors. These open houses give members an opportunity to network over coffee and doughnuts with other businesses and learn about what’s happening with the chamber. The next event is at 8 a.m. on March 29. The chamber also had a great happy hours at Levity Brewing in February.
At Thursday’s board meeting, Struzzi unveiled an exciting opportunity for chamber member businesses.
Through a partnership with Comcast Spotlight, the chamber is offering significant discounts for television advertising across many key Comcast networks during peak periods for members only. Packaged with a brief chamber message touting Indiana County businesses, participating members can save 50 percent on commercial production costs and 35 percent on advertising rates. The program is being finalized and will be rolled out to chamber members in the next couple of weeks.
“We saw this as a great opportunity for smaller businesses in the community that may not have a large budget for television advertising to gain incredible exposure across the region,” Struzzi said. “It also give us an opportunity to promote Indiana County overall. If our chamber member businesses succeed and we bring more people here, we are all successful.”
The region will see economic impacts not realized in the area for many decades through the construction of the Shell Cracker Plant in Beaver County. There will be opportunities across western Pennsylvania that should stimulate the local economy. By “cracking” ethane from natural gas, the plant will create materials used to produce many plastic-based products, cleaning products and more. These products will be shipped to within a 700-mile radius of the Shell plant.
That is why Struzzi and Byron Stauffer, executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, recently participated in a one-day conference exploring the petrochemical industry and the opportunities the cracker plant will bring to the area. The county has the space, incentives, resources and infrastructure to support plastics manufacturers. The goal is to be ready with new companies here that will utilize the products created by the plant.
In addition, the Indiana County economic development team is looking at the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana — the petrochemical epicenter of the United States — to mirror what their communities did to capitalize on the industry. The conference, held March 8 in Titusville, featured many speakers on a variety of topics related to petrochemical production and the workforce needed to support the industry. More than 400 people attended. Several of the speakers came from Louisiana and provided great insight based on their experiences on how to prepare for this great opportunity coming to western Pennsylvania.
Chamber Marketing Manager Annie Rizzo gave an update on the chamber’s marketing efforts and upcoming spring membership drive which will again include free radio ads on Forever Media for new members, prizes and the member referral contest. Rizzo also shared a new program created by the chamber and Planful LLC to offer free social media training at various levels for chamber members. And the chamber’s social media presence continues to grow. In February, the chamber’s social media outreach had 4,000 new impressions from first-time viewers, Rizzo said.
County Commissioner Rod Ruddock said the commissioners are concerned with the proposed reduction or elimination of Community Development Block Grant and the impacts this could have locally. He also mentioned the recent release of the Regional Transportation Alliance Imagine Transportation 2.0 report, a vision for a better transportation future in the greater Pittsburgh region. The vision includes seven principles the RTA believes provide guidance for the region to make decisions and investments that achieve better mobility for all.
These principles are further illustrated by 50 Ideas to Explore, which serve as examples of what those changes could look like.
“The RTA is looking at where we are today and where we need to be in 20 years,” Ruddock said.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Dr. Mike Driscoll said projections are looking good for fall 2017 enrollments, due to effective marketing and recruitment without weakening admission standards in challenging financial times.
As it was announced recently, the state system will be moving forward with a review process to look for improvement opportunities. Driscoll said a consultant has been engaged and will be begin visiting state system universities in April. He looks forward to their visit to IUP.
“IUP is in a strong position,” he said. “I look at it as an opportunity to make things better and make other universities as strong as we are.”
Driscoll was also recently appointed as board member with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which focuses on issues in rural areas, including addiction, safety, economic development and others. He said it will provide opportunities to compare best practices.
Arnold Thimons, director of student success at WyoTech, said the school’s recent career fair attracted 84 employers from around the country, conducting 150 interviews with WyoTech students. These interviews resulted in 50 on-the-spot job offers, many of them from local companies.
New classes for adult students will begin in two weeks. WyoTech has about 100 students enrolled in the adult program in addition to their younger students fresh out of high school.
Thimons also said WyoTech has a strong student veterans organization that is looking for volunteer opportunities in the community.
“We have a large group of people who want to get out and help the community,” he said.
Community groups in need of volunteers should contact Thimons at Arnold.Thimons@zenith.org.
Dave Brocious with the Marcellus Shale Coalition said gas commodity prices remain a mixed bag due to temperature fluctuations. While the cold temperatures this month are good for the industry, the warm days in February were not.
“There is a softness in demand and an excess in supply,” Brocious said.
Rig counts are also down this month by two to 32. Gas production, as a byproduct of increasing oil wells, is also increasing in Texas.
Overall, Brocious said 2017 will be a transition year for the industry as policy shifts and the marketplace changes. The MSC is also concerned that the proposed severance tax in the governor’s budget could push companies to other states if it moves forward. There are also issues being contested in areas where land use zoning is in place. Most drilling currently occurs in agricultural areas. Though it may not have much of a local impact, a current court case elsewhere may require drilling in industrial zoned areas only.
On a positive note, Brocious said work is beginning on various pipeline projects across the state including the Sunoco Logistics line that will travel through southern Indiana County. This construction is expected to bring 300 to 400 temporary jobs — and potentially 50 permanent positions — to the local area. The company, Trinity, which is constructing about 60 miles of the pipeline, is based at the 119 Business Park in the Coral-Graceton area.
Stauffer said the focus at the regional level continues to be Route 422 through Indiana and Armstrong counties.
Multimodal funds through a $700,000 grant have been allocated for local road and bridge improvement projects. Coupled with local matches, between $1.5 million and $2 million could be available for Indiana County projects this construction season.
“There is a lot of excitement to get these underway and improve our infrastructure,” he said.
Business Retention and Growth
Stauffer said major upgrades are underway at the Gordon Sinclair facility along Indian Springs Road. The new business in Indiana County that manufactures marketing and branding materials should be operational soon.
Meanwhile, Stauffer said there’s positive news that many local companies are looking to expand and grow their operations. New business inquiries are increasing as well.
“We’re seeing a lot of activity, so that’s good,” he said.
Dave Coleman with the Indiana County Manufacturing Consortium said local manufacturers are seeing a solid return in the industry. While not yet a significant increase, most manufacturers are back to consistent levels of orders and commerce.
Indiana County Development Corporation President Jim Wiley said there is a lot of positive movement and inquiry from developers interested in the new 200-acre Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park on Route 286 in White Township. The state-of-the-art site is ready for development.
Work will continue this summer through 2018 to complete roadway construction through the west side of Windy Ridge to ultimately connect with Rustic Lodge Road.
“Windy Ridge is set and ready to go,” Wiley said.
Kelly Howells with Anew Home Health Agency and the Healthcare Consortium said various trainings are underway for health care professionals through the consortium. The annual recognition breakfast is May 3 at the Indiana Country Club. Tickets and sponsorships are available. There is also a 5K in Clymer on May 27 to benefit local veterans sponsored by Crossbridge Physical Therapy and Anew Home Health Agency.
Indiana Mall Manager Sherry Renosky said despite what many may have heard, the mall still has more than 40 stores and only 10 vacant spaces. Mall owner Zamias continues to search for businesses to fill the vacant spaces, but Renosky acknowledged it is a difficult time. She emphasized that retailers are struggling everywhere across the nation, not just locally. Some stores, she added, are doing exceptionally well, including the movie theater, which hosts more than 1,000 attendees every Monday, when movies and a small popcorn are $5 per person.
David Smith, board member and State Farm agent in Clymer, gave an update on Clymer Borough. While there are some vacant stores, business is improving there, Smith said. The former Whipstock location was recently purchased by a company affiliated with the gas industry, as was the former Nittany Oil Company. The borough is also working to improve quality of life by applying for a grant to improve the green space adjacent to the Little League fields. In addition, Clymer is conducting tests to remove an odor from drinking water. New waterlines and a tank will be installed in the future.
“Everything is going fine in Clymer,” Smith said. “We are working together well.”
Tae Ayers with S&T Bank and chair for the Chamber’s Young Professionals Organization, said the recent Breakfast and Learn with Stauffer went exceptionally well. A St. Patrick’s Day mixer is also planned Wednesday at The Coney. In addition, the YPO is exploring more opportunities for community service and volunteer opportunities.
The chamber will offer its members many opportunities to network, meet new customers, learn and grow and find success including a special Business After Hours speed networking event sponsored by Bayada Home Health on March 30 and Bill Drury Customer Service Training on April 4 and an after hours at New Story on April 6.
The chamber added five new members in February:
• Huber Electric
• CDT Insurance Group LLC
• Sheesley Electric
• B&G Brothers Rentals
• Stream-Flo USA LLC
There were also 33 renewals last month.
The chamber’s next meeting is April 12.