Nestled in the unspoiled forests and scenic mountains of the Pennsylvania Wilds region, Jefferson County is a tourism mecca with a solid manufacturing base. “Overall, the largest industry in the county is manufacturing,” says Brad Lashinsky, Executive Director of Jefferson County Development Council. “It makes up 23.6 percent of our industry, which provides us a solid foundation on which to grow and operate.”
The county’s booming tourism sector ensures that the economy remains sufficiently diverse. “We have a lot of tourism and recreation opportunities. Last year alone Jefferson County generated over $115 million in annual revenue with recreation and tourism. It makes Jefferson County a great place to live, work, and play.”
Located halfway between Chicago and New York City, the county’s strategic location along major thoroughfares is advantageous to both tourists and manufacturers, as well as to the transportation and warehousing sector, another significant local industry. “One of the strong suits for Jefferson County is that we have excellent travel corridors,” Mr. Lashinsky points out.
Interstate 80, which connects California to New Jersey, runs through the county, as well as Highway 219, which links Toronto to Miami. Highways 322, 28, and 36 connect the community with the region’s surrounding cities. “Given the access to these travel corridors, [Jefferson County] has proven to be a great location to get your product out to market.” Locals also enjoy access to rail service, which leads to the major east coast ports, as well as a regional airport with service to Washington Dulles International Airport.
Jefferson County is best known for its weather predicting celebrity, Punxsutawney Phil. The city of Punxsutawney welcomes between 20,000 and 50,000 people every Groundhog Day, when its famous forecaster makes his annual appearance to a throng of adoring fans. “Visitors from all over the world come and take part in the various festivities that are put in place in Punxsutawney,” Mr. Lashinsky reports.
The county is also home to Cook Forest State Park, an expansive woodland with towering old growth pines and hemlocks as well as a picturesque river ideal for kayaking and rafting. Elsewhere in the county, miles of railroad tracks have been converted to scenic trails for hikers and cyclists to enjoy. Hunting, camping, and horseback riding are popular throughout the area. “We have a lot of green space in our communities where families can enjoy anything from bike riding to picnicking and fishing. There is a little bit for everyone to enjoy.”
The county’s most recent attraction to open to the public is Scripture Rocks Heritage Park, a hidden treasure with 1.5 miles of hiking trails leading to an open-air chapel. Throughout the park, visitors will stumble upon Bible verses that were chiseled into hundreds of boulders during the early Twentieth Century.
In addition to outdoor recreation, tourists to Jefferson County enjoy small town charm, with plenty of eclectic shopping opportunities and historic architecture. “The town of Brookville, the county seat, has received numerous awards for historic buildings,” says Mr. Lashinsky. “We have a lot of independent store owners that put a lot of time and effort into maintaining their storefronts.” Many of the county’s communities boast a classic town square that serves as a center for local festivities throughout the year. “The local chambers of commerce all work together to put on festivals and other events. They do a lot of coordination together to provide a lot of opportunities [for entertainment].”
Supporting local industry
Jefferson County is committed to supporting local industries and manufacturing has managed to maintain a strong foothold in the community. Building upon a history of world-class glassmaking that stretches back to 1907, glass container manufacturing continues to be the largest employer in Jefferson County. The county also continues to be a leading producer of fabricated metal parts, with over 25 companies employing approximately 1,200 people in the sector. With some of the world’s finest veneer quality hardwoods located in the area, 19 companies currently process trees for commercial and residential use. The county is also a center for the powdered metal industry.
New manufacturers continue to choose Jefferson County for their operations. “We are the first area in the state to open up a whiskey distillery,” shares Mr. Lashinsky. “They manufacture old fashioned moonshine.” Startups like Blackbird Distillery can count on Jefferson County for help getting off the ground. “We have done very well in helping current businesses to grow and helping new ones to start up.”
Jefferson County Development Council is able to connect local businesses with funds, including a revolving loan fund through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We are sitting on a million dollars and we are allowed to lend up to $100,000 per project.” Additional money may be available through partners such as the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, and these loan packages offer a three percent fixed rate interest rate, much lower than a typical bank loan.
Loans are available to a wide range of businesses. “It can be for new startups where a lot of banks are very hesitant to take that risk. Or it could be for a business expansion project here in the county.” Jefferson County Development Council will walk these businesses through the entire process. “We work with a client from scratch,” Mr. Lashinsky explains. “They come in with an idea and we partner with Clarion Small Business Administration in Clarion, Pennsylvania, which helps that client develop a true business plan. From there we review the business plan, make our recommendation and put a loan package together.”
In addition, the Council can help businesses find their ideal property. “We also specialize in commercial real estate. We have commercial real estate properties and we take calls all the time from clients with specific interests in mind, whether they want a piece of property along the interstate or in a specific community. A lot of times we are able to track a personal property down for them.”
Jefferson County Development Council also connects local businesses with grants and tax breaks. The council has succeeded in getting a number of properties classified as Keystone Opportunity Zones or as participants in the county’s Local Economic Revitalization Tax Abatement program (LERTA), both of which offer substantial tax abatements.
As well, the Council’s business incubator program provides office space at an affordable rate. “We operate a business incubator building, which is designed to help a struggling business or a new startup get on their feet and continue to grow. We typically lease our space out far below market value in an effort to help create and retain jobs.” The 17,000 square foot incubator building is already filled to capacity and the Council is currently in the process of building a new one.
The Cobblestone Hotel in Punxsutawney is just one recent example of a new business that enjoyed strong support from the Council. “They wanted to break into the Pennsylvania market,” Mr. Lashinsky recalls. “The Jefferson County Development Council helped them with that by passing information along, attending meetings, getting a group of investors lined up and so forth. That hotel is now going on their second year of operation very successfully.”
The Council also helped Primary Health Care open a $13 million, three-story facility in Punxsutawney. “Through our assistance—we were the grant applicant—they received $2 million redevelopment capital assistance through the state. We were able to administer that, work with them directly, and get the building built.”
Currently, the Council’s big project is a new business park located on Interstate 80. The 166-acre park will eventually be home to a wide range of commercial and industrial businesses, from restaurants to manufacturers. Funded through state and federal grants, the park is now in phase two, which will include putting in roads and infrastructure. Already approved as a Keystone Opportunity Zone, the business park is expected to generate between 250 and 500 jobs. “At this time we have at least eight tenants that are highly interested in moving out there. We are looking forward to getting some of the lots shovel ready so we can move them into it.”
Armed with a steady tourism industry and a strong manufacturing foundation, Jefferson County is well placed for the future. “I think we have a very solid base to build upon and we are doing that,” Mr. Lashinksy remarks. “The community has been very receptive to changing and to growing. I think our future looks very promising.”