Bright Outlook for Mercer County, Speakers Say

HERMITAGE, Pa. – Penn-Northwest Development Corp. is working on projects that could mean a $174 million in investment in Mercer County and 3,400 jobs, those who attended the inaugural forecast breakfast Tuesday presented by the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Rachel Leige, Penn-Northwest director of economic development, delivered the news at Avalon Golf & Country Club @ Buhl Park.

Leige was one of 17 who spoke on steps their organizations are taking to advance education, health care, local media, business development or quality of life in Mercer County.

“We always have a pipeline of new industry projects that are potentials for the area,” Leige said. Her agency narrowed a list of 60 prospects to 40, “companies that we really think could make it here and we have the network to support [them],” she said. Over the past seven months, seven of those companies have conducted site visits.

One project Penn-Northwest is working to bring to fruition is a one-million-square-foot grocery distribution center, she said. It’s part of the logistics and distribution industry the agency is working to attract as it points to the region’s prime transportation access.

“Manufacturing is still very much alive and well,” she added. Another company Penn-Northwest is working with, a Canadian manufacturer of custom-made security products, is looking to establish a U.S. office.

The agency also is working with a pair of “utility-scale energy producers” that would put Mercer County “at the forefront of some new energy sector projects,” including solar, she said. Interest from the solar sector is driven by the cost of land and efficiency and affordability of infrastructure maintenance.

Sherris Moreira, executive director of the chamber, sees “a lot of potential for growth” in the Shenango Valley, including several business expansions and projects in health care. The county visitors bureau, VisitMercerCountyPA, is working to bring “interesting attractions” that would support the area, she reported.

The focus on positive news “doesn’t mean that we’re ignoring the challenges in the community,” Moreira said. Those challenges include the announcements, just before the end of last year, that the Sears and Macy’s department stores in the Shenango Valley Mall will close. And Shenango Valley residents are affected by the elimination of the third shift at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

The community escaped another closing that would have hurt the community when the State Correctional institution-Mercer, slated to close, will not, Moreira noted.

Such closings can provide opportunities, said Maggie Horne, director of the Small Business Development Center at Gannon University. “Many of our small businesses are launched out of closings like that,” she said.

The center provides free one-on-one counseling to entrepreneurs and small businesses as well as educational programs, she said.

Two of SBDC’s initiatives this year are launching an incubator and relaunching the Athena PowerLink mentoring program for female-owned businesses. “It is a valuable program for the woman business owner who wants to take her business to the next level,” she said. “I’m determined to bring that back.”

Several speakers highlighted upcoming developments with their organizations:

Don Owrey, president of UPMC Horizon, reported his organization would invest more than $50 million over the next 24 months into new program development, infrastructure improvements and facility renovations, including more than $30 million at Jameson Memorial hospital.

Doug Decker, executive vice president at Laurel Technical Institute, said the school would soon unveil a new 30,000-square-foot center in Hermitage. It is maintaining its operation in downtown Sharon.

Shane Nugent, vice president of The Nugent Group, said it’s two months away from opening the new 70,000-square-foot Lakes at Jefferson retirement community in Mercer. There residents will be encouraged to participate in activities and tasks they choose.

“We call it our community with purpose,” Nugent said. Research shows individuals with a sense of purpose and strong social outlet live richer lives and tend to recover quicker when faced with a health challenge.”

The chamber’s approach to economic development focuses on quality of life, Moreira said. Focusing on such amenities makes a place more attractive to draw workforce as well as new business, she said.

“We’re taking a different approach that we can actually help create synergy between traditional economic development approaches,” she said.

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