The ‘King Coal’ Region Seeks to Diversify

Greene County, Pennsylvania
Written by Nate Hendley

Coal is king in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and for decades has been the basis of the county’s expansive industrialization. In fact, a festival in honor of coal was launched in the county in the 1950s and is still held today. Coal and natural gas underpinned Greene County’s economy for decades, and while there are still mines, natural gas facilities, river, rail, turnpike and interstate transportation, as well as unparalleled power infrastructure in Greene, the county – which is as rich in history as it is in resources – is eager to use these assets, the supply chain and business acumen to diversify the economy for future prosperity.
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Greene County’s abundant natural resources of fresh water, timber, prime farmland and hilltop vistas make it “one of the most beautiful counties in the south-western part of Pennsylvania. It’s a safe place to live; the cost of living is low. It’s a great place. It’s been a coal mining and a gas county, and now we’re moving beyond that,” states Greene County Board of Commissioners’ Chair Blair Zimmerman.

Greene County is almost ninety percent rural. It is based on the Allegheny Plateau and contains take your breath away vistas of hills, ridges, valleys and creeks. About 37,500 people live there, in six boroughs, twenty townships and smaller communities.

“I worked in the coal industry almost forty-one years. Coal was the number-one industry in Greene County. It employed thousands of people. A lot of guys in recent history had six figure salaries. Tax revenues in the school districts were just unbelievable,” states Zimmerman.

Global market shifts and the rise of other fuel sources diminished coal’s share of the nation’s energy portfolio. For all that, “the coal industry will be around for a while, but we won’t see the peaks we saw in past. Coal still plays a big part in our economy in Greene County,” continues Zimmerman.

Natural gas still plays a big part as well, and might take on even more importance in the near future. Last year, Shell Chemicals announced plans to build an ethane cracker plant in nearby Beaver County to take advantage of the region’s abundant natural gas deposits. According to Shell, the project might require six thousand workers to construct the multi-billion dollar facility and a permanent staff of six hundred employees to run it once it opens.

“The cracker plant is in Beaver County, a little more than an hour from us, but the state is putting $1 billion into a new highway that will improve our access to the site. In addition to that, there is another company that is expected to make a final investment decision by the end of this year for a cracker plant located in Ohio. It’s just over the border, so it’s closer to us,” states Greene County Executive Director of Economic Development at the Department of Economic Development Robbie Matesic. She also highlights the proximity of Greene County to world-class healthcare, education and technical innovation, situated between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Morgantown, West Virginia.

Earlier this year, a firm called APV Renaissance Partners – a subsidiary of American Power Ventures – announced plans to convert a shuttered coal-fired power generation plant in Greene County into a natural gas plant.

Energy and manufacturing are not the only players in town. Other big employers include maximum security prison State Correctional Institution – Greene and Waynesburg University. There are many operating farms in the area as well.

The county’s long history in agriculture dates back centuries, and the knowledge base, talent and farm assets are being utilized to market to agriculture-related businesses including manufacturing, technology and bio-sciences.

To promote new development and a more diversified economy, area boosters are banding together into a collective body called the Greene County Alliance for Economic Growth.

“If a company is interested in Greene County, we can sit with them [and speak] with one voice,” explains Sharon Rodavich, a consultant for the Greene County Industrial Development Authority.

The alliance intends to help prospective firms cut through red tape and make them aware of business incentives. For example, Greene County can offer a five-year property tax abatement for companies putting up new buildings or structures. Another program allows businesses to apply for grants up to $50,000, primarily for infrastructure, explains Rodavich.

“The coal miners and everyone in Greene County are excellent with their hands. They can build things, put things together,” states Greene County Industrial Developments, Inc. Executive Director Don Chappel. That said, “nothing’s off the table,” when it comes diversification, according to Zimmerman.

Indeed, the state government recently selected Greene County as a site to grow medical cannabis. The facility will include over 100,000 square feet devoted to plant cultivation. A private firm is building the center, and constructing the facility will require a team of temporary laborers. Once open, officials forecast the medical cannabis site will employ sixty full-time workers.

A medical cannabis operation is a new spin in technology and the health sciences for an historic county. Greene County was formed in 1796, taking its name from General Nathanael Greene, a hero of the American Revolution revered by his likeness gleaming atop the County Courthouse. However, the county’s history goes back far earlier.

The area is dotted with indigenous American sites that pre-date European settlement. At one point, Greene hosted a series of forts, designed to protect pioneers. By 1800, the population had topped 8,600. A century later, 28,281 people called Greene County home. The population has ebbed and flowed since then, hitting a high of 45,394 in 1950. Some of the main industries during the county’s development were agriculture, glass and brick-making, and coal, which was mined in great quantities. Oil and gas production were also prominent.

Greene County today is well-known for its old covered wooden bridges and historically significant cemeteries, which contain the graves of over two hundred soldiers from the American Revolution. The county currently boasts over forty sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including three historic districts. Greene County also features the westernmost point of the Mason-Dixon Line, the demarcation, surveyed in the 1760s, that came to mark the boundary between the northern and southern states. Two of the National Register sites are situated on the campus of Waynesburg University, founded in 1849. It is the first school in Pennsylvania and one of the first in the nation to confer degrees upon women in 1857. Beyond its structures, the values instilled by many distinguished alumni through to today’s students include time-honored constitutional studies and service leadership across the globe as the hallmarks of this beautiful institution situated in the county seat.

“We played a big role in the founding of this country. There are a lot of people in Greene County that are descendants of the Founders, and they take that heritage and legacy very seriously. In fact, just beyond our borders is the first road that was built by the federal government to open the frontier … We have strong historical and geological societies. History is near and dear to people’s hearts,” says Matesic.

Greene County holds a number of community events. The county claims to have the oldest fair in the United States; the Jacktown Fair is the nation’s longest continuously-operating agriculture fair, since 1865. There is also a Covered Bridge Festival; the Greene County Fair, held each August at the county fairgrounds; Rain Day, an event in which friendly wagers are made as to whether it will rain on July 29; and the King Coal Show, a reflection of the importance coal played in the county’s development, to name a few.

Recreational opportunities include hunting, and Greene County is renowned for its populations of whitetail deer, wild turkeys and pheasants, among other game animals. The area also features other outdoor opportunities like fishing and hiking.

“There’s a low crime rate here,” Rodavich says when asked what the appeal of Greene County is to families. “It’s a safe community. This is a community where kids can walk to the Dairy Queen; they can walk uptown; they can ride their bikes. We have trails. It’s a small community where most folks know their neighbors.”

She also mentions recreational opportunities and a great school system as other reasons to attract families.

Some of the natural gas companies that have come into the area to drill have established corporate foundations. These foundations in turn have invested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programming in county schools. Rodavich describes this investment as an example of how the gas companies give back to the community.”

Zimmerman notes that Greene County is affordable. Indeed, the median list price of a home in the county, according to website Realtor.com, is $119,000.

Waynesburg University is the leading post-secondary school in the county. The University is a private, non-profit Christian university that enrolls over 2,200 students. Waynesburg is well-regarded for its Masters in Nursing, Business Administration as well as more than 70 academic concentrations including education, criminal justice, communications, journalism, education and business programs.

Post-secondary programs in mechatronics, coding, cyber technology, crane operation, diesel mechanics and truck driving are also offered through the affiliates of the workforce development system.

Other academic institutions include the Greene County Career & Technology Center (CTC). The center offers students courses in such areas as business and computer information, building and construction skills, cosmetology, child-care services and electrical work, for employment and continuing education purposes.

Greene County officials want the region to grow, but not at the expense of losing its rustic charms. They are not interested, for example, in seeing Greene County reach 100,000 people.

“This a rural county. We want growth [but want to maintain] the safety, the affordability. It’s a nice rural county. You can go out in western part of the county, if you want to build out there, you wouldn’t necessarily have a neighbor if you picked the right spot. It has that kind of atmosphere. Fifty thousand to fifty-five thousand people – that would be a great number, but never in my lifetime will we see 100,000,” says Zimmerman.

In addition to economic diversification, Zimmerman identifies infrastructure as being one of Greene County’s biggest challenges.

“Part of being a rural county, we still have issues with broadband, water, sewage. Those are big challenges,” states Zimmerman.

As for the future, “We’re looking for opportunities that can bring 150 to 550 or 1,000 jobs. Manufacturing that pays good wages, so we can attract restaurants, more housing. We’re looking at every opportunity … We’re reaching for the stars,” he adds.

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