Penn-Northwest Turns Repopulation Model ‘On Its Head’

SHARON, Pa. – Attracting new businesses to help bring more people to the area has been the traditional approach taken in economic development. Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., wants to flip the script by attracting talent to the Shenango Valley to help encourage new development.

Repopulation strategy was among the topics addressed at Penn-Northwest’s annual meeting Wednesday, during which local businesses and individuals were recognized.

“We want to create a world in which places … rather than competing for business and people follow, why don’t we increasingly live in a world where places compete for people and business follows?” Wilt asked. “So we’re turning that paradigm on its head.”

During his remarks, Wilt addressed several programs that Penn-Northwest is pursuing to promote economic development, including a newly established fund to support advanced technology companies and the Future Leaders Homegrown Initiative launched a couple years ago.

“Our slogan for everything we do is one word – repopulation – and we will explore any idea that connects our young people to you in this room when it comes to creating or building a career,” Wilt said.

Penn-Northwest last year set a 10-year benchmark to address population decline in the county, though Wilt acknowledged progress so far is difficult to calculate.

From left are Matthew McConnell, Mercer County commissioner; Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corp.; and Brad Mantzell, Penn-Northwest chairman.

“I can tell you that we’re on fire for this initiative, so hopefully next year at the annual meeting, we can report some good news to you,” he said. “But I will tell you, all of the anecdotal evidence points to the fact that we will be successful.”

With the help of various partners, including the Governor’s Action Team in Pennsylvania and site selectors, Penn-Northwest developed 28 industry leads resulting in 21 raw prospect proposals and nine site tours that led to four companies siting in Mercer County. Economic development throughout the county over the past year generated more than $7.35 million in new direct technical, workforce and other financial support, Wilt reported.

“In the last year, we’ve seen a significant uptick in industrial development,” he said. “In fact, we’re nearly out of space.”

Wilt urged the audience at the meeting to “stay tuned for some exciting projects” underway in the county. These include the anticipated redevelopment of Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage and interest shown by a Pittsburgh area developer in pursuing housing, recreation and retail projects near the Grove City outlet mall, potential industrial development in Greenville and near Exit 15 of Interstate 80 in Mercer.

One of the two Industry Impact Awards presented Wednesday was given to Advanced Power & Energy, which is occupying the former Greenville Motors site. No representatives were on hand from the company, which provides Level 3 electric vehicle chargers powered by specialized ZincFive-manufactured batteries that are capable of storing up to 1 million watts of power.

“The Level 3 chargers can take a car battery from 30% to 100% in half an hour,” Wilt said.

Advanced Power & Energy also is the first recipient of funds from the recently established Mercer County Innovation Fund, which provided $50,000 to the company in conjunction with $450,00 from Pennsylvania’s Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, for a total $500,000.

“In the 37-year history of Penn-Northwest, we’ve never had a program to financially assist entrepreneurs in emerging technologies in our community,” Wilt said.

The other Industry Impact honoree was Rien Construction in Brookfield, Ohio, which is in the process of renovating two manufacturing buildings in Sharon, totaling about 250,000 square feet.

“It will be the largest open manufacturing space that we have available to attract a new tenant into Mercer County,” Wilt said. One of the companies Penn-Northwest is showing it to is ZincFive as a potential manufacturing site.

Other honorees during the event, held at the Corinthian Event Center, included outgoing Mercer County Commissioners Matthew McConnell and Scott Boyd, who received Improvement Movement Team Champion Awards. Delaney Lantz, lead attorney in the real estate department of Evans, Garvey, Lackey & Ochs, was awarded the Homegrown Award. Penn-Northwest launched the Homegrown Initiative to connect young people to jobs in Mercer County.

“Since our inception, the Homegrown Initiative has grown exponentially,” said Jack Rickert, director of workforce development for Penn-Northwest Development Corp. and director of the Homegrown program.

The program connects with more than 3,000 students annually, he reported. Its efforts include spreading career awareness to local high schools and middle schools and hosting social events to connect young adults to community business leaders.

The program has approximately $500,000 in state funding, Wilt reported. “The objective is to reach every school-age and college-age kid in Mercer County to educate them about the phenomenal career opportunities we have in the county,” he said.

Another key element to Penn-Northwest’s repopulation strategy is housing, he said. For the first time in a long time, developing more housing is “an integral part of a comprehensive economic development strategy,” he said.

“That will really help us push forward in our repopulation efforts,” he said.

Pictured at top: Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corp.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.