Indiana County, Pennsylvania is bridging the past and the future. Located an hour from Pittsburgh, in the foothills of the Alleghenies, the community’s traditional coal industry is still active – but increasingly, the Marcellus and Utica Shale Plays are providing new opportunities, while a variety of non-energy sectors are also moving in to take advantage of the business friendly environment.
Local coal still fuels three major power plants located within the county. “Coal [powered] electric generation is still a very strong industry,” says Economic Development Specialist Dana P. Henry. “These power plants supply a good portion of the power generation into the northeastern grid.” Agriculture also continues to underpin the economy. The climate is particularly ideal for growing Christmas trees, earning Indiana County the name Christmas Tree Capital of the World.
A significant number of Indiana County’s new businesses support the region’s burgeoning oil and gas industry. “A lot of the service companies are migrating to Indiana County,” Mr. Henry reports. “That includes everything from laying pipe, to sharpening bits, to repairing compressors.” A growing number of non-energy related businesses have been attracted to the county as well. “It is a very business friendly environment,” he explains. Innovative high-skilled and high-tech industries are flourishing, as are financial services, retail, and healthcare. In fact, the local hospital has managed to remain independent and financially viable without being “gobbled up by a conglomerate.”
The community’s agricultural foundation provides a quaint backdrop – from rolling green fields to covered bridges – while urban centers boast bustling downtowns and college town amenities. “If you drive into downtown Indiana (the county seat) you don’t see a lot of vacancies,” says Byron G. Stauffer, Jr., Executive Director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development. “You have a college town feel, with a lot of shops and local restaurants.” This atmosphere is brought on by the presence of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, as well as Cambria-Rowe Business College, Westmoreland County Community College, and WyoTech, which teaches the latest automotive technology to nearly 700 students.
From restaurants and shops to power plants and oil and gas service companies, local businesses are strongly supported by the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations (CEO). Launched in 1994, the county-wide public-private partnership is dedicated to the overall growth and prosperity of the entire business community. The CEO provides information about business services as well as direct assistance; coordinates access to these services; coordinates direct assistance that helps existing businesses grow and new businesses to relocate in Indiana County; builds community support for major economic development initiatives; and advances projects that strengthen the overall business climate and economic vitality of the area.
The CEO is comprised of five affiliates dedicated to county-wide economic development: the Indiana County Commissioners, the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana County Development Corporation (ICDC), the Indiana County Tourist Bureau, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). By partnering together, these five organizations collectively showcase the array of services that each one of them brings to the table, Mr. Stauffer explains.
The Indiana County Commissioners oversee the financial, administrative, and public affairs of the county and spur on economic development in a variety of ways, from microloans to tax incentive zones. The Indiana County Chamber of Commerce provides advertising, networking, and other services to its nearly 700 members to promote a vigorous business climate and strengthen economic development opportunities in Indiana County. The Chamber plays a key role in bringing new businesses into the county and helping existing businesses grow.
The ICDC is a private, non-profit, industrial development corporation that supports the creation and retention of quality jobs in Indiana County by developing and maintaining business parks and multi-tenant buildings. Thanks to the ICDC’s efforts, the county boasts several new business parks, ranging from 27 acres to 200 acres, all of which are located at convenient locations and have special tax incentives like the Keystone Opportunity Zones in place.
The Indiana County Tourist Bureau works to showcase the vitality and quality of life that Indiana County has to offer. Tourism is the second largest industry in the Commonwealth behind agriculture, Mr. Stauffer points out, so the organization plays an important role in the local economy. Indiana County boasts a wealth of tourist attractions including 5,452 acres of parks and 792 acres of lakes, as well as an expansive Rails to Trails system stretching 64 miles and offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Hunting and fishing opportunities abound throughout the county.
Historical attractions include the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center and 24 National Historic Register sites including four covered bridges. Jimmy Stewart was born and raised in Indiana County and movie buffs enjoy touring the Jimmy Stewart Museum and seeing his boyhood home, the church he attended, and a statue in his honor. Tourists also flock to the 31 different fairs and festivals that Indiana County hosts every year and enjoy spending time in the quaint community of Smicksburg, home to over 300 Old Order Amish families.
With over 14,000 students, IUP is the largest institution in the State System of Higher Education and Indiana County’s largest employer. IUP delivers a number of economic development programs, organizes student internships, and runs a small business development center, a center for family business, a business incubator and a program to help local companies land business with local, state and federal government entities.
To be sure, the community continues to move forward toward a prosperous future. Major infrastructure projects are underway, ensuring a good environment for both businesses and residents. There have been a series of upgrades to the water and sewer systems and recent highway improvements have made Pittsburgh accessible in as little as 45 minutes. “Getting to the city is a lot simpler, quicker, and safer now,” shares Mr. Stauffer.
In addition, the county just finished expanding its airport. Now the region is accessible to large corporate jets that couldn’t land previously. This will be a boon to local businesses that had long been limited in their transportation options. “It will have an economic development impact,” states Mr. Stauffer. In addition, Indiana University of Pennsylvania has recently invested $270 million in new student housing, which will likely bring even more students to the area. “I see us continuing to make targeted improvements and I see the private sector responding to that and making targeted investments and creating jobs.”
The energy industry also has some exciting new developments on the horizon. A new ethane cracker facility is expected to be built in a neighboring county. A cracker plant takes ethane from natural gas and ‘cracks’ it into ethylene, which is used to make a wide variety of everyday products, from plastic bags, tires and textiles, to paint, electronics and pharmaceuticals. The proposed plant would be the first cracker facility of its size in the Marcellus shale region and would provide thousands of jobs during the construction phase. Once operational, the facility would directly employ a few hundred people, and there are predictions that its presence could create thousands of indirect jobs.
A major cross-state pipeline is also being built to carry natural gas products from the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling region to storage and distribution facilities near Philadelphia. The multibillion dollar pipeline will run through southern Indiana County and, like the proposed cracker plant, will be a boon to the local energy industry. “Current market conditions notwithstanding, the available natural gas supply provides Indiana County and our region with an opportunity to grow manufacturing and other downstream industry sectors to take advantage of the abundant energy resource,” Mr. Stauffer predicts.
Indeed, Indiana County is all set to continue growing and developing economically. “We have premier leadership, excellent neighborhood schools districts, ever growing infrastructure, a robust transportation network, and industry model business parks and multitenant buildings,” says Jerry W. Richardson, Assistant Director of Economic Development for the CEO. “We have all the pieces to be very successful.”