New Penn-Northwest Executive Director Outlines His Vision at Annual Meeting

GREENVILLE, Pa. – His first two months at the helm may have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, but Penn-Northwest Development Corp.’s Rod Wilt has been working hard on building a new foundation for economic development in Mercer County.

Wilt, who was named the economic development organization’s executive director in mid-September, laid out his vision for the agency’s future at the agency’s annual meeting Tuesday. In a pre-recorded video released on YouTube, he laid out the foundation he hopes to build that will provide a base for future development efforts in the county.

“Mercer County has a long, long list of assets that we’ll use to drive economic development activity into the future,” Wilt said. “It’s going to take collaboration. It’s going to take calibration. It’s going to take leadership, cooperation and coordination to build from our current base into the future.”

Among the top priorities for building relationships, he said, are those with elected officials and the health care, education and energy sectors. With the latter, he and the leadership team have been examining how Mercer County could tap into the developments taking place in Beaver County with Royal Dutch Shell’s ethane cracker plant and related businesses that are starting to set up shop. He also noted the potential for developing renewable energy resources in the area.

“Lately, there’s been an upswing in potential land leases in the northern part of the county for solar fields. We need to look at opportunities within this emerging market and see how there’s a fit for Mercer County in the future,” Wilt said.

Penn-Northwest’s work will be on turning the county into an attractive place for both businesses and residents, he continued. On the commercial and industrial side, that means tapping into “Mercer County’s long, rich traditional of manufacturing and a skilled workforce” and developing supply chain clusters and vertical integration around existing companies, Wilt said.

For residents, that development means improving recreation – Wilt said he’s already had several meetings with groups working in that area and reported they’re “well on their way to reinvigorating our assets” – and improving quality of life.

“Over the last 10 years, the migration out of the southwest corner of Pennsylvania is moving north. We can already see it in our home prices. We can already see it in the length of time homes are on the market in the county. We’re finding that Mercer County is a destination for those who want to escape an urban setting,” he said.

“We need to build on that and see that Mercer County is becoming a retirement destination. But these are not last decade’s retirees. These are people who are here to work and play, and they bring with them lots of intellectual capital that we must be prepared to capitalize on.”

Internally, Penn-Northwest will focus on further developing its staff and partnering with area colleges and health-care systems “in some unconventional ways.

“We’re already incorporating ideas as to how we can use them in our economic development future,” Wilt said. “We must be on a first-name basis with their leaders, listen and learn from them at every opportunity.”

Among the new additions to the calendar will be “topical economic forums” hosted upward of six times per year, starting with a virtual event in January. Wilt also envisions the return of Penn-Northwest’s Business & Industry Day event as a way to showcase what Mercer County has to offer.

“We want to build on that model and turn it into a day-long celebration of Mercer County business and all the opportunities that exist here. There is a way for Penn-Northwest to develop ancillary income through sponsorships and well-structured events and we’re already putting those on the calendar,” he said.

Before the pandemic began affecting Mercer County – and the United States as a whole – Penn-Northwest had already planned on focusing on community health and wellness for 2021, board chairman John Thigpen said. 

In October 2019, board members joined with Sharon Regional Medical Center to develop a health and wellness forum that was to include health-care, business, education and community leaders. In December, they met at UPMC Hillman to tour the new cancer center there and in March, “days before the COVID outbreak, shutdowns and Great Pause,” met at Grove City Medical Center, which had recently been acquired by Allegheny Health Network.

“We heard about their vision for community wellness. We were on a roll. Then we got derailed and have been unable to meet, at least physically together. Our health-care leaders have been working to keep our communities from falling deeper into the dark,” Thigpen said.

But with the pandemic, many of those plans were put on hold. Still, the agency and its members “should all be proud of what we were able to accomplish,” including relocating Penn-Northwest’s headquarters to the eCenter@LindenPointe and hiring Wilt, who replaced former president and CEO Randy Seitz.

“I want to thank Randy Seitz for the work he did leading our organization over the past eight years. For those who haven’t been able to keep in touch, he’s doing well in south Texas practicing economic development,” Thigpen said.

On the financial side, Penn-Northwest Development  Corp. had revenue of $517,000 and an operating loss of about $24,000, reported treasurer Drew Pierce. There were two one-time events that resulted in losses: the sale of the agency’s previous office in Sharon, a $21,000 loss, and the write-off of a $200,000 loan. The agency ended the year with $2.8 million in assets and “very little liability.”

“We started the year very strong and as we entered the fourth [fiscal] quarter in April, we were at positive revenue over expenses,” Pierce said. “Then COVID hit and I don’t think I need to speak to the impact of that. Still, we ended the year with very strong financial numbers.”

Penn-Northwest welcomed a dozen new members in its 2020-2021 fiscal year: Compliance Environmental Services, CTC Packaging, Dalko Resources, Ford Business machines, Hall Technical Services, Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, Insurance Management Co., Mercer County Community Federal Credit Union, Moody & Associates, NextEra Energy Resources, Riverchapel Financial and WKBN Digital.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.