New Leadership Charts Shenango Valley Growth

SHARON, Pa. – Penn-Northwest Development Corp. is creating a fund to supplement its loan program to help Mercer County businesses as part of its new Program of Work. 

Money for the fund is coming from repaid loans and loans that were written off, then the funds were recaptured, along with potential federal and state resources. So says Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest executive director since September 2020.

The idea is to develop “some kind of innovation fund” beyond Penn-Northwest’s Mercer County Industrial Growth Fund to help retail, Main Street and technology companies. He sees the opportunity to provide them with additional resources. Penn-Northwest would also help companies such as the startups at the [email protected], where the economic development agency is based.

The fund is among the initiatives being launched or revived by Penn-Northwest and the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, which also changed leadership the past year. Olivia Brown was hired in April as executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber.

Olivia Brown was appointed in April as executive director of the  Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce. 

Brown and Hilt point to a focus on membership as they set their organizations’ courses out of the pandemic.

“Things are going fairly well,” Brown says.

Earlier this year, the Shenango Chamber joined with other area chambers to host the Mercer 40 Under 40. It is preparing for the Phoenix Awards in September and its annual meeting in November.

“My idea of getting back to normal is being able to go out, have more in-person functions and more in-person meetings,” Brown says. She would rather interact with members face to face than over a computer or phone.

The chamber’s Phoenix Awards recognize member businesses in various categories. This year, the focus is on honoring “members that have really made a difference during the pandemic,” Brown says, made strives through it and emerged in a positive position.

“These businesses really need to feel like they are being appreciated,” she says. “We know that they’re still here and they’re working hard.”

Since taking the helm of the chamber, Brown has launched a member outreach initiative.

“We’re trying to get some feedback from our members,” she says. “We sent a survey out to see what members want to get out of their membership.”

 At Penn-Northwest, the priority is creating jobs in Mercer County. 

“We’re always looking externally to bring companies from the outside in,” Wilt says. “But for me, there are great opportunities to increase employment, increase the footprint, increase the technology and innovation of our companies that are already here.”

To that end, Wilt and Melinda Bowen-Houck, marketing, membership and special events manager of Penn-Northwest, are focused on methodically highlighting local industries and seeing what can be done to help them expand.

Since Wilt joined Penn-Northwest, he has visited more than 100 companies, according to Bowen-Houck.   

“It’s been a blast,” Wilt says. “We always walk away from those visits shaking our heads.” He pauses. “Who knew there was this much technology, innovation and ingenuity going on right here in our backyard?”

Wilt says one of his goals at Penn-Northwest is to “act like a trade association” for Mercer County – getting businesses to communicate and do business with each other rather than look elsewhere for products or services.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting people know what’s out there,” he says.

Wilt applauds the increased productivity that has resulted from the adoption of technology that occurred because of the pandemic. He acknowledges he previously hadn’t heard of Zoom or similar virtual meeting products that companies began to use over the past 18 months.

“Normal,” he says, probably will mean a hybrid model, with both in-person and virtual connection.

“I am a fan of the virtual meetings. They’re highly efficient. They’re highly effective,” Wilt says. “It’s a great way to get a lot of work done in a short period of time.”

And Penn-Northwest can be more ambitious with its goals “because the pandemic taught us how to be super-efficient with our time,” he says.

Virtual technology helped Penn-Northwest trim travel expenses and expand its membership.

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 41 new members joined, more than triple the 12-member goal that had been set, according to Wilt.

“What I’m most concerned about is how do we provide value to our members,” he says.

He anticipates being able to expand outreach and to help members by using the new virtual tools.

“Our biggest challenge as a team is how many of these new members can we retain, how many of our existing members continue to renew and how many more people can we reach?”     

The Shenango Valley Chamber lost some members during the pandemic, which was expected, Brown says.

“We also gained several new members and are excited to keep moving forward with our new and [long-standing] members,” she adds.

Brown and Wilt both look forward to their respective organizations collaborating. In addition to having overlapping objectives, the two organizations share board members. 

Brown says one of her goals is to collaborate more with Penn-Northwest as well as other chambers of commerce.

Since Wilt became executive director, Penn-Northwest has begun to host quarterly economic development summits with chambers in the area, economic development specialists and county officials.

“We sit around the table and talk about what we’re doing,” he says. Penn-Northwest also helps with fundraising and outreach efforts.

“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where that relationship goes moving forward. And I’m sure there’s definitely going to be some collaboration going on with them,” Brown says.

 “We’re all in this together,” Wilt says. “Wherever we can help [the chamber], we’re a resource for them.”

Pictured at top: Rod Wilt took the helm of Penn-Northwest Development Corp. last September.