NEW CASTLE, Pa. – The Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s approach to economic development has changed markedly over the past few decades.
The more robust efforts include helping to find financing and sites for multimillion-dollar projects, chamber officials report.
Diane Lynn Richardson, assistant director of economic development, has seen the changes since she started working at the chamber in 1991. Back then, the efforts were “sort of fledgling,” she says.
“It didn’t have a lot of focus,” she says. Earlier efforts focused on filling financing gaps in smaller projects and had less community involvement than there is today.
Eventually, the chamber and Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., an entity that later merged with the chamber, began to take on real estate development projects. Among them were the Riverview Commerce Park and Millennium Park in Neshannock Township, Pa., where Steelite International has its warehouse.
Steelite has undertaken “a couple of expansions” since occupying the building, bringing it up to 100,000 square feet, says Linda Nitch, chamber director of economic development. “And we’re working with them again on a third expansion for another 50,000 square feet,” she adds.
Nitch, who was LCEDC’s director when it merged with the chamber four years ago, also is working with the developer of a proposed business park at Stonecrest Golf Course in the southern end of the county. Pittsburgh-area developer John LaCarte, who began looking at Lawrence County for a site in 2016, purchased the property in 2020.
The chamber and LCEDC helped secure $5 million in loans and grants last year from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Finance Authority for infrastructure improvements at the site.
“Everybody thinks that [development] happens fast,” Nitch says.
The chamber has several inquiries it is pursuing or assisting with, including a project in the $18 million range and a $3 million expansion of Keystone Compliance’s operation in New Castle, Pa.
During the last 18 months, the chamber received 27 requests for proposals from prospective companies. Excluding the largest and smallest, the average building size being sought was around 180,000 square feet, with a preferred ceiling height of about 33 feet on average, says Alex McCoy, CEO of the Lawrence County chamber.
When there isn’t a building available, prospects are prepared to move on. “If you don’t have it on the shelf, they just sort of pass you by,” Nitch says.
“In economic development, people aren’t looking for reasons to come here. The site selection process is a site elimination process,” McCoy says. “They’re looking for reasons not to come.”
Additionally, rural areas like Lawrence County get eliminated based on talent even before prospective developers come to the community. If they don’t see the skill sets they need as they’re doing their vetting, the chamber doesn’t get called, he says.
“We need to figure out how to bring in young people who have marketable job skills, whether they work here initially or we become the bedroom community of choice” to neighboring communities such as Youngstown, Pittsburgh or Cranberry Township, McCoy says.
Lawrence County has some advantages, including housing costs that are 42% of the national average. But expenses such as transportation and groceries are higher than the national average, he says.
The chamber CEO says more time needs to be spent working with people who live in Lawrence County and want to start businesses there.
“That’s certainly something we’ve tried to embark on with the partnership with the Duquesne University Small Business Development Center,” which the chamber contracts with to maintain a local satellite office, he says. A specialist now staffs the office Mondays and Tuesdays.
Pictured: The Lawrence County Regional Chamber Communications and Investor Experience Specialist Melanie DeVincentis, CEO Alex McCoy and Linda Nitch, director of economic development.