Schools, Scenery and Economic Opportunity

Huntingdon County, PA
Written by Nate Hendley

Huntingdon County is located in central Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny Mountains region. It is a place of magnificent scenery, famous for abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, from fishing to mountain biking and hiking.
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A quiet, peaceful region with a sizeable retirement community and lots of schools, Huntingdon County has the potential for much economic growth. County officials want to bring in new businesses and residents without spoiling the area’s unique charms.

Huntingdon County Business and Industry (HCBI) Executive Director Bob Reitman describes what kind of companies the county would like to attract. “I think we want a mix of entrepreneurial things, but we do want to stick with our strengths in agriculture, tourism, retirement and education … We also think there’s a place for software and mixed manufacturing. We have a particular strength in metalworking manufacturing. We have five or six incredibly innovative machine shops.”

At present, some 45,395 people call Huntingdon County home, and median household income is $50,910. State government institutions including prisons, schools and forestry administration, are big employers in the area. A packaging and printing plant run by ACCO Brands Corporation is one of the largest private employers.

Agriculture still has a pretty sizeable presence in the county. The local agricultural sector “is kind of typical for Pennsylvania – lots of dairy, lots of corn. There’s a lot of timber products since we’re heavily forested … We also have a pretty sizeable organic grower’s [community],” says Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau Executive Director Matt Price.

Low costs are a lure for new businesses and residents alike. The median housing price in Huntingdon County is $101,000, versus $221,800 for the U.S. in general. Reitman cites the case of a metalworking business that recently relocated from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Huntingdon County. While Lancaster is only one hundred miles away, the company owners figure “they can run their business for about a third – based on land and labor costs – of what they run their business for in Lancaster,” he states.

There are also state and county incentives that might be of interest to companies. “We have several local programs. We have an enterprise zone loan program. We have a Keystone Innovation Zone [run by the state government], part of which is located in the Sill Business Incubator … Further to that, HCBI works with our regional partners – the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission (SAP&DC) – and they have loans for the region. We also piggyback on the whole toolbox of economic development things that Pennsylvania offers, such as the Small Business Development Loan Program, which we’re a regional partner of,” says Reitman.

Huntingdon boosters say their county is a prime spot for residents, as well as businesses. “We have a high quality of life. It’s a great place to live. It’s safe. We have good, active community-involved schools. It’s a good place to raise a family. You’re seeing a lot of people move back here to retire,” says Huntingdon County Planning and Development Director Mark Colussy. It is not uncommon for people to grow up in Huntingdon County, move away for work or other purposes and then move back to enjoy retirement in a familiar setting, agrees Reitman.

The weather is agreeable too. “Our climate is pretty temperate for the Northeast. We’re south of the Snowbelt. So the lake-effect snows that come off the Great Lakes do not usually hit Huntingdon County. Our summers are warm with an average temperature in the 80-degree mark. Our winters hover around freezing. The quality of air is gorgeous here,” states Price.

Huntingdon is something of an outdoor person’s paradise. The county is famous for its creeks and rivers packed with fish, particularly striped bass and trout. Even U.S. presidents have been known to fish in Huntingdon County. “Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter would take their helicopters and land right at Spruce Creek, from Washington DC [to fish]. You can tell when they were there because you could hear the helicopters,” says Reitman.

The area is also highly popular with hunters, hikers and mountain bikers. In fact, Allegrippis Trails was named the Best Cross Country Bike Trail in North America, and one of the “4 Best Bike Trails” by Men’s Journal magazine in September of 2009. “There’s a mountain bike festival called Dirt Rag Dirt Fest which happens in May. That event alone attracts about 3,000 mountain bikers from across the country and overseas,” says Price.

For anyone interested in more organized sporting events, Juniata College is a Division Three NCAA school, with powerhouse men’s and women’s volleyball teams.

In terms of historical attractions, Huntingdon County has a large number of gravesites of African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War on the Union side.

Huntingdon boasts a lively series of community festivals and activities. There are events in March to mark the maple syrup harvest and a big street fair called Mayfest each spring with themes, costumes and vendors.

“It’s not uncommon for fifty events a week to be going on during summer. That’s everything from community festivals to art walk events and county fairs. Moving into fall, almost every weekend there is a community festival somewhere in the county. From the beginning of September to the end of October, that gets us into the Thanksgiving/Christmas shopping season. We’re a destination for both of those as well,” says Price.

Huntingdon County receives “about 1.3 million visitors per year,” continues Price, who says his office publishes an annual visitor’s guide and maintains a website to provide information about local attractions.

In addition to visitors, Huntingdon “has a high concentration, probably highest outside of Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, for seasonal and second homes. People from larger metropolitan areas – Philadelphia; Washington, DC; Baltimore; New York and Pittsburgh – buy real estate here. They build beautiful vacation homes, stay in them a few weeks a year or rent them out sometimes. In a lot of cases, people just come and fall in love with our scenery and the recreational opportunities we have here. We have an example of that with the restaurant Woody’s Bar B-Q. [The owner] came here as a second home owner, spent time here and eventually decided to open a restaurant. His restaurant is doing extremely well,” says Price.

The J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital is the main medical facility in the county. A non-profit institution that can trace its roots back over a century, the hospital has more than four hundred employees. There are also a handful of regional medical centers in the county.

While it is predominantly rural, Huntingdon County has a wide and diverse educational sector. The county claims six school districts, ten private schools, four technical and charter schools and three colleges. The latter include Juniata College and Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. The flagship campus of elite Pennsylvania State University is nearby.

Founded in 1876, Juniata is a private, liberal arts college with roughly 1,600 students. It is primarily an undergraduate school, though there are graduate programs in a few areas.

“Juniata is kind of unique. What most colleges call majors, we call programs of emphasis (POE). We have over eighty POEs. Students can create an individualized POE in the subject area that really interests them,” explains Terry Anderson, director of the College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership/Sill Business Incubator at Juniata College and an assistant professor of entrepreneurship.

Juniata has well-regarded biochemistry and health sciences departments that are very popular for students looking to go on to medical school.

Pennsylvania Highlands Community College is a technical school while Penn State, just over the northern border of Huntingdon County, is a huge institution that has 100,000 students across twenty-four campuses in the state. The flagship Penn State campus “is outside the county, but it’s one of the leading employers of county residents,” says Reitman.

Huntingdon has old roots. It was established in 1787, and three years later, a census counted some 7,558 people in the county. The population topped 35,000 in 1840 then went up and down for the next few decades. The number of residents passed 40,000 in the 1940 Census. By 2000, there were 45,586 residents in the county.

Huntingdon boosters want their county to grow, but not too much. The population in the county has been relatively stable over the past few decades, even as other communities in central Pennsylvania have lost residents, says Price.

“People say they like it just how it is. It’s rural. We have great scenic overviews. We have a lot of open spaces. People like our heritage and history. They like our small town feel. We could deal with another 5,000 to 10,000 people, but we don’t see ourselves in the 100,000 range. That would have a major impact on the environment and natural scenic beauty. It would impact how people interact with each other. People thought this county was very friendly,” says Price.

As for the future, Reitman anticipates “stability in our businesses … I can see us landing a few more businesses here and there and getting a few more destination places to keep more money in the county. I see us really becoming a jewel of the Northeast.”

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