NEW CASTLE, Pa. – As Forward Lawrence closes in on hiring a new CEO, the organization is working on initiatives to help the local business base grow and to spotlight existing opportunities in Lawrence County, Pa.
These comprise efforts to expand its membership, explore the creation of an incubator, highlight employment opportunities and bring greater exposure to potential development sites, the leaders of Forward Lawrence say.
Kimberly Koller-Jones says she anticipates having a CEO on board by July for Forward Lawrence, the organization encompassing the chamber and Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. Koller-Jones is executive director of the Hoyt Center for the Arts in New Castle and president of the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
Forward Lawrence was adopted as the umbrella name for LCEDC and the chamber following the similarly named study that Garner Economics LLC conducted in 2021. The Forward Lawrence initiative was launched to support businesses within the county through leadership development,
collaboration and business development.
The chamber and development corporation have been without a CEO since Alex McCoy left in February 2022. That was followed nearly a year later by Linda Nitch’s departure as LCEDC executive director.
“Over the last year or so, we’ve been taking a hard look at ourselves and doing what we need to do to position the organization for success, not just in carrying out the Forward Lawrence initiative, but in hiring the next CEO,” Koller-Jones says.
Following an earlier search, Forward Lawrence initiated a second that drew 54 applicants. From that pool, the selection committee interviewed 10, then narrowed that down to five for a second round of interviews.
The third round will consist of the top two or three candidates making a presentation to the board and invited stakeholders, she says.
“We’re excited about the quality of the candidates,” says Lisa Nentwick, economic development adviser with FirstEnergy and LCEDC president. “They’re all either from the region or familiar with the region. So I think we’re going to get a good final candidate out of this.”
Working with a consultant over the past few months, Forward Lawrence has focused on items the existing staff can address successfully in response to what community stakeholders have said they want or need, Koller-Jones says.
Initiatives resulting from that process include reinvigorating the event calendar and implementing two new membership levels, one for new businesses, the other for small businesses.
“It just seemed to be a need that was being expressed by the community and we were looking at making the chamber and its programs more accessible,” Koller-Jones says.
In addition, Forward Lawrence is launching a pair of internship programs, including one with Westminster College, to match local employers with young talent and looking at a larger internship fair in the fall.
“Typically, once those young people get the exposure and the experience with those employers, they’re more likely to stay as employees of those organizations,” Koller-Jones says.
Also in the works is an internship fair in June in collaboration with West Central Job Partnership, which has a program for young people between the ages of 16 and 25. The fair will offer sessions on developing leadership skills, business etiquette, learning to make a pitch and mock interviews.
“It was important to us to show them that there are good-paying jobs in Lawrence County,” Nentwick says. “The perception is that you’ve got to get an education and leave. So we wanted to show them that there are good-paying jobs to get them to
To further help startups, Forward Lawrence is exploring development of a business incubator, one of the initiatives in the multiyear plan that came out of the Forward Lawrence report. The organization applied for a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for a planning study.
“We’ve committed to doing it. It’s just a matter of understanding what it should be and where it should be at,” Diane Richardson says. Richardson has been the acting director of LCDEC since Nitch’s departure. Initial plans to incorporate a co-working space as a component of the proposed incubator were set aside, she says.
One project that the development corporation is working on involves Steelite International, which is expanding its warehouse in Millennial Park in Neshannock Township, Richardson says.
Steelite received a $3.5 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from Pennsylvania to support the project.
“This is their second buildout at that location,” she says.
There are other projects the development corporation is working on that involve the commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, Koller-Jones says.
Among them are the proposed Stonecrest Business Park in New Beaver Borough, a 100-acre park being developed by LaCarte Development Co., and an expansion by Keystone Compliance, Richardson says.
Stonecrest, which plans to erect a multitenant building at the site, just received its permitting approvals and is preparing to install infrastructure.
LCEDC also helped to secure $1 million in multimodal transportation funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for infrastructure improvements on and near Washington Street in New Castle that Richardson says should be complete by the end of summer.
Those improvements, which will include curb and sidewalk upgrades, decorative lighting, streetscape amenities, railroad crossing relocations and paving projects, will result in improved roadways for manufacturing and industrial clients in that area and enhance retail development along Washington Street, she says.
Funds are being sought from the Appalachian commission for a planned second phase, which would involve rerouting truck traffic in New Castle. “There will be a signal on Washington Street by the Lawrence County Courthouse that will route them onto a bypass,” Richardson says.
Meanwhile, Forward Lawrence will seek a replacement for Nitch after the new CEO is on board, according to Koller-Jones.
“One of the advantages of having vacancies on staff is it does give you the opportunity to realign positions and responsibilities,” she says.
One of the most important qualities being sought in the Forward Lawrence CEO is the ability to build and maintain relationships. To generate consensus around any plan requires having good relationships with the individuals, including those in government, who can help further those initiatives, Koller-Jones says.
“We want to incorporate the voices of our stakeholders,” she says. “We’ve developed committee structures in which we would like to invite those stakeholders to participate so that their voices can be heard – so that we can take the Forward Lawrence recommendations and compare them with the needs and wants of the municipalities and then pick the best fits from there.”
Recent growth in Lawrence County earned the community its listing among the nation’s top micropolitan communities, according to Site Selection magazine. Lawrence County, listed as the New Castle, PA Micropolitan Statistical Area, tied for the 44th spot among the 543 such communities in the United States.
Site Selection ranks communities based on the number of large, private economic development projects completed. Lawrence County had three projects that met Site Selection criteria in 2022. For a project to qualify, businesses must hire at least 20 new employees, build new industrial space in excess of 20,000 square feet or invest at least $1 million in equipment or buildings.
The annual rankings help to generate regional buzz by attracting the attention of people involved in economic development and the general public, helping to demonstrate that Lawrence County is a good place to do business, Richardson says.
“Sharing these positive economic growth stories demonstrates that our community is a desirable place for growing companies to invest their dollars,” she says.
One recurring theme to emerge from the consultant’s work – 25 community stakeholders representing different entities were interviewed – was the need to support existing industries in the county rather than pursuing “the next shiny thing,” Koller-Jones says.
“You can’t just attract a new, big industry that’s going to come in and employ 1,000 people and everybody’s problems are over, she says. “That’s unlikely for Lawrence County. Actually, it’s unlikely for Pennsylvania.”
Pictured at top: Kimberly Koller-Jones is executive director of the Hoyt art center and president of the board of directors of the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce.