Mercer Economic Summit Highlights Needs for Growth

GROVE CITY, Pa. – Attracting and retaining employees continues to be a challenge for many Mercer County industries represented at the Mercer County Economic Summit on Thursday.

Economic development, business and community leaders gathered at Grove City College for the second summit presented by Penn-Northwest Development Corporation. Panelists from government, health care, manufacturing, education and outdoor recreation shared their progress and challenges. Housing, staffing shortages and retaining and attracting people to the community were some recurring themes.

Repopulation continues to be a goal for the region, said Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest executive director. 

“It used to be that if you build businesses, the community would come. Now that’s switched around,” he said. 

Wilt said when Penn-Northwest met with businesses coming out of Covid, they were saying, “We need people; we need people; we need people.” That led to an informal study that found many people in Mercer County don’t know much about opportunities that are available. That led to the Homegrown Initiative.

Workforce Development

Jake Rickert, Penn-Northwest director of workforce development, leads that initiative. He was joined on the workforce development panel at the summit by Nate Hamilla, site administrator at PA CareerLink Mercer County; Aaron Kline, assistant director at Mercer County Career Center; and Doug Decker, executive director of Laurel Institutes.

“A couple of years ago, we really noticed that the young adults, this next generation that’s moving up, didn’t have a good idea of what all Mercer County had to offer in terms of live, learn, work and play,” Rickert said.

From left are Jake Rickert, director of workforce development at Penn-Northwest; Nate Hamilla, site administrator at PA CareerLink Mercer County; Aaron Kline, assistant director of the Mercer County Career Center; and Doug Decker, executive vice president of Laurel Institutes.

The Homegrown Initiative introduces young people to opportunities, including visits to businesses. That targeted young people nearing college and technical school graduation, showing them the jobs available in the county. But some of them already had their minds made up to leave the area, Rickert said. 

That’s when the initiative started engaging with younger people, and it moved into the high schools, introducing them to career paths in the county and informing them of the pay scale.

“This is really an area where you can have a family. You can grow, get a good education and then, following that, get a great career,” he said.

Through collaborating with partners, the initiative helped students secure internships or jobs, aided middle school students in attending a business expo and revived a manufacturing event for young people.

A new program is just beginning at Penn-Northwest to introduce middle school students to industry and career options, too.

Hamilla said CareerLink specializes in connecting job seekers with employment opportunities. He works with area education providers and industries that identify high-priority occupations in the area and then creates and funds the training programs to meet those needs.

Health Care

The health care industry in the region struggles with finding people to fill available positions. 

“The people we bring into the area love it here,” said Dr. Elizabeth Piccione, president of UPMC Jameson and Horizon. They talk about how friendly people are and the low cost of living, she said.

“Sometimes I think our residents are more negative” about the community, the doctor said.

She was joined on the health care panel by Joshua Miller, director of finance at Allegheny Health Network; Dr. George Garrow, CEO of Primary Health Network; and Chris Wright, president and CEO of St. Paul’s Senior Living Community.

Dr. Garrow said his company works with employees as they finish their schooling, allowing them to work while they complete their training. There’s also a shortage of primary care physicians. 

He said he was fortunate as a young person to have someone in his life to encourage him to pursue his dream to be a physician. He urged those at the summit to encourage young people who have that dream, too, adding that he would be happy to mentor them.


Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge for manufacturing companies as well.

“A lot of what everyone has been talking about is affecting manufacturing,” said Tim Feeney, general manager of Sharon Tube and Zekelman Industries. 

His company is investing in equipment. Barry Zekelman, the company owner, is focused on the community and the facilities. A lot of the company’s projects aim to make the facilities user-friendly for the next generation.

The company is working to get more people interested in manufacturing as well as retaining workers, he said.

John Frangakis, CEO of Reynolds Services Inc., and Jonathan Hall, president and CEO of Hall Industries, rounded out the manufacturing panel at the summit.

Reynolds Services is a metal packaging service center with operations in Greenville, Pa., Baltimore, Maryland, and in Youngstown and Toledo, Ohio. The company also works with EVs as a second-tier supplier to Tesla and other companies and construction and home decor. The company does a lot of work in additive manufacturing. His company had cargo on the ship that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge this week in Baltimore.

His company also works to retain employees and appeal to the next generation of workers. 

The Hall Group of companies comprises engineering, manufacturing and service operating units. 

“It’s truly a community effort,” Hall said. “That’s why we’re so happy to be in Grove City. There seems to be a real interest in the local community here in Grove City.”

Small businesses don’t always get that same attention in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, he said. The company works in materials handling, from coal to phosphorus to grain. And they do it all over the world, including in Ukraine, helping to get grain out of that country through the Black Sea. The company uses workers in that country for the job.

“The No. 1 issue we have is labor, and it’s not labor – it’s talent,” Hall said. “We are so desperate for talent – finding it, molding it, mentoring it however we can.”


Education panelists Brian Tokar, superintendent of the Greenville Area School District; Ronald Rowe, superintendent of the Mercer Area School District; Matthew Nelson, curriculum director of Keystone Charter School; Emily Clare, supervisor of curriculum at Farrell Area School District; and Raymond Omer, superintendent of West Middlesex Area and Reynolds school districts, talked about the challenges in education.

From left are Matthew Nelson, curriculum director of Keystone Charter School; Brian Tokar, superintendent of Greenville Area School District; Emily Clare, supervisor of curriculum at Farrell Area School District; Raymond Omer, superintendent of West Middlesex Area and Reynolds school districts; and Ronald Rowe, superintendent of Mercer Area School District.

There’s a lack of teachers, they said. Clare worked as a principal in West Middlesex and in a wealthy district near Pittsburgh before going to Farrell. She says students in Farrell often get left out.

“We do not have an achievement gap. We have an opportunity gap,” she said.

Outdoor Recreation

Another panel focused on outdoor recreation. Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro launched the Outdoor Business Alliance, said Nathan Reigner, outdoor recreation director for the state. 

He said outdoor recreation is an economic driver as well as a quality of life contributor. He was joined on the panel by Mark Scarpitti, park manager at the Maurice K. Goddard State Park; Daniel Bikel, park operations manager at Pymatuning State Park; and Casey Shilling, co-owner of Carried Away Outfitters.

The panelists said outdoor recreation saw a surge during and after the pandemic. That’s decreased some, but people continue to take advantage of the outdoor activities available in high numbers.


Mercer County Commissioner Timothy M. McGonigle, Grove City Mayor Randy Riddle, Sharon City Manager Robert Fiscus and Mark Longietti, Hermitage director of business and community development, talked about the accomplishments as well as obstacles facing their communities. A lack of housing is one of them.

“It’s a national issue,” Longietti said. The city is developing the Hermitage Town Center, which may include a housing component.

“We’re excited about it,” he said.

Pictured at top: From left are Nathan Reigner, Pennsylvania director of operations; Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corporation; and Casey Shilling, co-owner of Carried Away Outfitters.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.