GROVE CITY, Pa. – Mercer County’s economy is resilient and strong. But the challenge ahead is to reverse trends such as population loss and the pressure it places on the local labor force – headwinds that could impede growth in the future.
That was the consensus among two-dozen leaders representing the public and private sectors at the first Mercer County Economic Summit, hosted July 28 by Penn-Northwest Development Corp. at Grove City College.
“The economy has grown in a lot of different sectors,” said Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest. “What we’re excited about is our businesses that are growing organically – they’re adding those five, 10, 15 jobs a year.”
Wilt said the manufacturing sector is holding steady, while pent-up demand after the pandemic has infused new life into the travel and tourism industry.
Meanwhile, there’s evidence that interest in health care careers is on the rise, he said. “There’s still a lot to be done but we’re headed in the right direction.”
The economic summit featured panel discussions that addressed specific areas of Mercer County business: state and local government, workforce development, health care, manufacturing, education, and tourism and recreation.
The region’s elected officials noted that unemployment in Mercer County is at its lowest levels since the county began tracking these statistics in 1975. The panel included state Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50, and state Reps. Tim Bonner, R-8, and Parke Whentling, R-7. Also on the panel were Mercer County Commissioners Tim McGonigle, Scott Boyd and Matthew McConnell.
The region has to address ways to reverse a population exodus that began decades ago, the panelists agreed.
“We have a population crisis,” said Bonner. He noted the commonwealth’s population growth rate was ranked 40th in the country and the demographics in Mercer County are decidedly older.
Brooks, who represents Crawford, Mercer and a portion of Lawrence counties, said another challenge is to encourage new housing across the county, as well as initiatives such as broadband deployment to meet the needs of a changing workplace. “There’s opportunity to tap into this,” she said.
County Commissioner McGonigle said it’s important that the county examine boosting quality-of-life amenities to draw in new residents and retain the existing population. “That’s the No. 1 thing that you have to have to attract people,” he said.
By 2040, it’s projected that one of every three residents of Mercer County will be a senior citizen. “We have to have things for them to do – things that make them want to stay here, live here and thrive here,” McGonigle said.
An initiative underway at Penn-Northwest is responding to the population bleed and the need to fill open jobs in the region.
The effort, called the Homegrown Initiative, is designed to rebuild the workforce across Mercer County, said Jake Rickert, who heads the workforce development division at Penn-Northwest and participated in a panel discussion on workforce development.
“For me, I think the best route is our young adults,” Rickert said. Approximately 5,000 are enrolled in area colleges, while another 1,000 are enrolled in area career centers. “What can we do with those 6,000 and plug them into our local businesses?” he asked.
Many young people don’t understand that there are plenty of opportunities in Mercer County, he said.
A year ago, Rickert said he canvassed students and asked them on a scale of 1 to 10, what was the likelihood they would stay in the county after graduation. The overall response was low – a 2.6 – many of them citing either family or the lack of opportunity as the reasons for leaving.
“We need a really big push on spreading career awareness,” he said.
Also participating in the workforce development panel were Lorie Hines, executive director of HopeCAT; Tony Miller, administrative director at Mercer County Career Center; Stephen Urda, career services development coordinator at Laurel Technical Institute; and Eric Karmecy, division chief, West Central Job Partnership.
“Like so many other communities, we’ve struggled with population loss,” Karmecy said. While the job market has rebounded from the pandemic, it’s also more competitive than ever.
In 2008-2009, for example, there were six unemployed persons for every job in the county, Karmecy said.
“Today, you’re about a one-to-one match,” he said. As of today, there are approximately 2,000 jobs that remain unfilled in Mercer County, he added.
The health care industry was hit particularly hard during and after COVID, panelists said at a discussion of the county’s health care system.
“It was really difficult to hire,” said Robert Rogalski, president of Sharon Regional Medical Center. But that trend is reversing, he said, citing partnerships with higher education and greater attendance at job fairs hosted by the health system.
Rogalski, along with Dr. John Mahinis, CEO of Community Counseling Center of Mercer County, and Dr. George Garrow, CEO of Sharon-based Primary Health Network, constituted the health care panel.
Garrow championed the collaboration of health care agencies during the pandemic – a collaboration that continues. He said there are significant socio-economic barriers that impede quality health care for many residents.
“The biggest opportunity we have is to work collaboratively across all health care systems in the county,” Garrow said, and address food insecurity, housing, literacy, isolation and other social problems.
The pandemic exacerbated mental stress, substance abuse and distrust over public health systems, he continued. Taking a nonjudgmental, compassionate approach is the best path to win back the confidence of patients and encourage those who are marginalized to return to the mainstream.
This region of western Pennsylvania is well represented by a concentration of a variety of higher educational institutions, said panelists discussing the state of education in Mercer County.
Participating in the discussion were Michael Buckman, vice president of business and finance at Grove City College; Jo Anne Carrick, campus director at Penn State Shenango; Susan Traverso, president of Thiel College; and Jamie McMinn, vice president of academic affairs at Westminster College.
“No student in Mercer County needs to go anywhere else but Mercer County,” Traverso said. Thiel, for example, was successful in recruiting 20% of the Greenville High School graduating class as incoming freshman. “They want to stay closer to home. And they have good choices,” she said.
Today, young people are attracted to regions with a diverse population, according to Traverso. Local colleges could have an impact in helping to diversify Mercer County to make it more appealing to younger adults, she said.
Moreover, the economic impact of these institutions cannot be understated, said Grove City’s Buckman.
An assessment by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania estimates that Grove City College alone has yielded a $175 million economic impact annually across the state, he said.
“I would suggest a lot of that is within Mercer County,” Buckman said.
Grove City College kicked off a $185 million capital campaign in May, he said. About $48 million will be spent on renovation of its STEM building, while $50 million would be devoted to financial aid programs.
Penn State’s Carrick said the Shenango Campus is also responding to the needs of local industry, offering courses on cybersecurity and a faculty member in materials engineering.
Students still must have a sense of “world readiness,” Carrick added, that is, exposure to liberal arts such as history and the humanities.
Panelists discussing the manufacturing sector in Mercer County reported their companies remain busy, despite higher interest rates and inflation.
“There are 195 manufacturers in this county,” said John Thigpen, president of ILSCO Extrusions Inc., Greenville. These manufacturers make up more than 24% of GDP in Mercer County and their employees constitute more than 18% of the workforce, he said.
Thigpen; Michael Walton, CEO of Jamestown Coating Technologies; and Brent Ward, president and CEO of Integrated Fabrication & Machine Inc., presented their observations on the region’s manufacturing sector.
Thigpen said his company stands to gain from growing interest in the electrical vehicle market, since ILSCO specializes in aluminum extrusions.
Ward said his company manufactures components used in power grids and transformers. It is anticipating new business from customers in the EV and alternative energy industries.
“Manufacturing in general is very strong,” he said of the Mercer County economy. “I don’t know how long it will stay strong because of the headwinds we’re seeing with the economy.”
For his business, though, the next 10 years should be “unprecedented,” Ward said, as EV adoption gains momentum and alternative energy projects such as wind and solar power come online.
Ward said his company is boosting its presence on social media to make potential employees aware of the opportunities with Integrated Fabrication & Machine.
“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from other prospective employers,” he said. “It is a challenge. Wages have been on the increase, too, and that puts pressures on the bottom line.”
TRAVEL AND RECREATION
Pent-up demand because of the pandemic has resulted in a flurry of activity for travel and recreation, reported Peggy Mazyck, president and CEO of Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We are seeing people traveling and spending money – even with inflation, they don’t care,” she observed. This demand has driven hotel stays, which has also generated $1.1 million in Mercer County bed taxes.
Making use of the Shenango River, new bike and hiking trails and other destination sites – wineries and craft breweries, for example – have all helped attract patrons to Mercer County, Mazyck said. Campsites across the region are full.
The hotel industry has rebounded, said Stacey Glenn, director of sales for American Hospitality Group, which operates hotels near the Grove City outlets. She and Mazyck, along with Tom Roskos, executive director of Buhl Park, comprised the panel.
“We have a diverse base for our customers,” Mazyck said. “We’re doing well – off about 1% from last year.”
Pictured at top: Six panel discussions were conducted on a full range of topics that deal directly with the vitality of Mercer County.