NEW CASTLE, Pa. – The development work completed over the past year in Lawrence County is setting the stage for the coming decades.
The new Hickory Run Power Station in North Beaver Township, Pa., is putting out electricity to the PJM grid. Pennsylvania American Water Co. has upgraded its amenities throughout the county. And the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce is preparing to start work on an initiative that will set up a countywide plan for economic and community development.
“Without infrastructure buildout, you can’t build other industries. One of the first things any industry looks at is if they can connect to sewage, to electricity, to natural gas,” says Lawrence County Commissioner Morgan Boyd. “With our recent developments at Hickory Run power plant and Pennsylvania American Water, that sets the stage for the next 10, 20, 30 years of development because now we have easy access to those utilities.”
Hickory Run Power Station, about eight miles west of downtown New Castle, began commercial operations in mid-May, with the electricity generated at the plant going onto the PJM Interconnection market June 1.
Construction on the $863 million plant began in August 2017. Operated by Tyr Energy, based in Overland Park, Kansas, it employs 23 full-time workers (See story page 44).
Pennsylvania American, meanwhile, began work on a $10.5 million project to extend service lines to 700 households in New Castle, Ellwood City and Neshannock Township and build a 30,000-gallon storage tank and pressure-reducing station.
The project is in addition to the $4.5 million upgrade of the county water main, as well as a 19-mile line extension to the Castlewood area of Shenango Township. And in November, the water company completed its $50 million renovation to the treatment plant in New Beaver.
Nearby, says Alex McCoy, executive director of the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce, a sale agreement is in place for land across the street from the treatment plant, although he cannot disclose who is buying the site.
“That site has been marketed by us for industrial development for quite some time. It appears we have a private developer interested in acquiring the site,” he says.
Other developments include the IBEW Apprenticeship Training Program center in Neshannock Business Park set to open this fall and Lawrence County Community Action Partnership’s $2 million purchase of the former Youth Development Center in Shenango Township, which will be converted into a campus and offices, says Linda Nitch, director of economic development for the chamber.
“Just recently, the planning commission of Lawrence County received a land development plan from Ellwood Specialty Steel in Wilmington Township,” she says. “They’re going to be doing a building expansion. It all links with their project in Ohio with a new aluminum smelter in Hubbard. They’ve got some great opportunities for the future, which in turn means we have great opportunities in our county.”
In total, the Lawrence chamber facilitated $65 million in private investment across the county last year and aided with companies investing $13 million in expansion projects, up from $5 million in 2018.
McCoy says he expects that investment number to stay elevated this year, as businesses look to reshape their workspaces to meet the demands brought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the pandemic hit Lawrence County in mid-March, the chamber has provided 54 companies with technical assistance, including 14 applications for the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds totaling $1.7 million.
Most of the prospective businesses the chamber has been working with are in the logistics sector, he says, noting that interest from site selectors has not waned, even with the COVID-19 crisis gripping the country.
“Amazingly enough, the phone has not stopped. It’s maintained the same constant ring for us,” McCoy says. “We’ve been short-listed for a project that we know of one other community in southwestern Pennsylvania that we’re competing with. We don’t know if there are communities in Ohio under consideration, though we suspect there are.”
Overall, says Commissioner Boyd, development in the county is pushing northward, with a heavy concentration of office space development in Neshannock Township
“We’re seeing development moving north, which has been the trend over the past 20 years. A lot of the professional businesses that used to be headquartered in New Castle are creeping up into Neshannock Township,” he says. “Right now in the downtown, you have ServaxNet working on starting its operations (See story page 42), Trealor & Heisel in financial services and tremendous investment by North American Dental Group.”
The next major initiative by the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce is the Forward Lawrence project, the development of a countywide community and economic development plan, McCoy says.
The chamber is seeking funding for the project. It has secured $48,000 so far, including $12,500 from the county and $10,000 from the county’s Industrial Development Authority. Applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Appalachian Regional Commission have been submitted as well, according to McCoy.
The ultimate goal of Forward Lawrence is to create a plan that will guide all of Lawrence County, McCoy says, by gathering input from stakeholders across the county.
“It’s important that we’re not telling people what to do. This is them telling us what they want,” he says. “If we can get the necessary buy-in, we can share that load and use Forward Lawrence as a master framework for strategic partnerships between groups to align their interests.”
Lawrence County has three chambers of commerce – the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Ellwood City Area Chamber and McCoy’s countywide organization. Each works alongside community development organizations and municipal economic development departments.
To Boyd’s knowledge, there hasn’t been a plan that the county as a whole has followed beyond the comprehensive plan, which doesn’t serve as an economic development guide, he says.
“One of the things I think our county has been lacking is a unified vision of how to proceed in terms of business attraction,” the commissioner says. “Forward Lawrence is a way to identify what we’re good at, what we’re not good at and how to target our business attraction efforts to those best suited for Lawrence County. We’ve never had that level of planning as it related to economic development before.”
Once Forward Lawrence is fully funded and work begins, the chamber will survey the community and host meetings to determine what work needs to be done. McCoy says that some of the primary suggestions of focus areas he’s heard from community leaders are schools, clean neighborhoods and welcoming communities.
With the census taking place this year, he adds that New Castle’s population is almost even with what it was in 1920, falling from its peak in 1950.
A century ago, it was industrial leaders who supported the creation of community infrastructure. Now, as he awaits the results of the census, McCoy believes this can mark a fork in the road for Lawrence County.
“That infrastructure has to be maintained and updated so it can continue that function. As people move away, there are fewer people paying into the system to maintain it,” he says. “We need more people who can give back because then they take care of their homes; the neighborhoods get cleaned up; we can have more kids in our schools. We’re not the only ones losing people. But we have to figure out how to slow it down and hold our own.”
That, Nitch adds, is the goal of Forward Lawrence: getting communities and their leaders, either government or community, to unite to advance the entire county.
“Hopefully, by doing Forward Lawrence, we start to break down the walls that silo people into thinking that something is New Castle’s problem or Ellwood City’s problem,” Nitch says. “It’s all our responsibility to overcome whatever issue we’re facing. We can work together for common goals.”
Pictured: The Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce facilitated $65 million in private investment last year, says Executive Director Alex McCoy. Companies in the county invested $13 million in expansions.