Forward Lawrence CEO Widens Agency’s Reach in Community

NEW CASTLE, Pa. – Initiatives to expand the availability of ready sites for economic development and to broaden the voices shaping policy and programs are among the priorities being pursued by Forward Lawrence under its new leadership.

A year ago, Ben Bush stepped into the role of CEO of Forward Lawrence, the partnership composed of the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. and Lawrence County Regional Chamber Foundation.

Before joining the chamber, Bush worked as a district director for senate leadership in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, developing a passion for community and economic development and “being the voice for business and industry,” he said. The opening at Forward Lawrence provided him with the challenge and opportunity to “[move] Lawrence County forward,” he said.  

Bush had “a great understanding” of the challenges business people face and good ideas about how to approach them, said Frank Moses, president of the Forward Lawrence Board of Directors. He also was a member of the search committee that recommended Bush’s hiring.

“He was really well-versed on understanding the issues that could be challenging for any business coming into the community or businesses in the community,” he continued.  

When Bush arrived at Forward Lawrence, one of the first things he noticed during his evaluation of the current economic strategy was the lack of local pad-ready industrial sites, an issue that also was being identified throughout the commonwealth.

In late March, ground was broken on Stonecrest Business Park in Wampum, and in May the economic development corporation was awarded a $500,000 brownfields assessment grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of a process to build a site inventory.

“The $500,000 is for us to be able to complete specific assessments of brownfield sites,” Bush said. That will include 10 Phase I environmental assessments and six Phase II environmental assessments.

An industrial site assessment planned in Lawrence County in the near future will identify the best areas to get needed infrastructure in place for development. “The site assessment process will identify potential sites for build out in Lawrence County and identify the infrastructure needs for each one of those sites,” he said.

Factors being considered will include proximity to highways, rail and utilities, he continued.

According to Bush, Forward Lawrence has identified three overall main goals: advancing the local and regional economy; ensuring member businesses have the greatest chance to succeed; and developing, attracting and retaining qualified talent.

Achieving those goals, he added, will come through five pillars: connect, market, advocate, educate and enhance. The first pillar involves connecting members to the tools they need for success, such as assistance with supply chain, a specific client pool or whatever issue they are dealing with. Marketing isn’t just assisting specific small businesses but promoting the opportunities and assets of the region as a whole.

Advocacy involves plugging in not only with local government officials and legislators, but at the state and federal levels as well. That kind of engagement has taken place increasingly over the past year, Bush said.  

“We need to not only support their efforts when they are efforts that we believe are in line with growing the economy here in Lawrence County, but we also need to be advocates for when decisions need to be made and changes to legislation or policy need to be made,” he said. “So it’s important that we engage on those levels.

Education involves providing information to business owners and government leaders on topics such as accounting, finance, marketing or others through tools such as the Noontime Knowledge series, he continued.

“The last one is enhance, and I kind of leave this one as enhance or evolve, because I feel like you’re constantly evolving as the market changes and moves,” he said.

“The enhance aspect involves traditional economic development such as public financing, constructing spec buildings and promoting available sites and revolving loan funds,” he said. “The evolve piece is one that we all have to do right if we want to continue to build our communities, particularly in rural America.”

Part of that is making housing – something that normally isn’t handled by economic development agencies – an economic development priority, he continued.

“If we’re trying to grow businesses locally or attract businesses from outside, those folks have to understand that their people have somewhere to live, that they want to live. That’s a huge piece,” he said. “We need to work with our housing developers. We need to work with our colleagues in state government to figure out the answer there.”

Since Bush’s arrival, Forward Lawrence has undergone a restructuring. That included updating the bylaws and organizational documents for both the chamber and the economic development corporation and expanding committees to include “more community involvement and just get more voices at the table,” he said.

“Diversity of thought is always a good thing,” he remarked.

“He has done a great job for us in this past year,” Moses said.

Before Bush’s hiring, Forward Lawrence was kind of fading into the background” and had “lost its position in the marketplace,” Moses said. Since his arrival, the new CEO has worked hard to bring it to the forefront. He has significantly grown membership and built relationships in the community.

“He focused on the key stakeholders in the community,” Moses said. “He realized you can’t get to the finish line by yourself. You have to have a lot of people with you in order to get across that line.”

Pictured at top: Ben Bush, CEO of Forward Lawrence.

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