The Treasure of the Valley

DRIVE
Written by Samita Sarkar

The counties of Montour and Columbia are located in the heart of America’s Susquehanna Valley. These neighboring counties of Central Pennsylvania boast a low unemployment rate (sitting at four percent as of June 2017), many booming businesses, and a new organization dedicated to help them create and retain family-sustaining jobs.
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The economic development entity DRIVE (Driving Real Innovation for a Vibrant Economy) was founded in 2015 to serve those interested in establishing or growing businesses in one of the most scenic parts of the country.

The rustic counties have a combined population of 85,000 people, but are a favorable point of consideration for new business due to their proximity to major metropolitan areas on the East Coast, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York City, and even Washington, D.C. Interstate 80 goes right through the counties, providing east-west access. Indeed, 40 percent of the U.S. population is within a three- to four-hour drive, yet business expenses and the costs of living are much lower.

In addition to highway I-80 and an outstanding rail system, the well-connected region is blessed with the Susquehanna River, which also runs right through Columbia County, and touches the southern border of Montour.

“I’ve lived here for more than 20 years now. I came from Pittsburgh, and I really liked that we have access to big cities, but we also have our own cultural atmosphere. It’s a great place to live and to work,” Jennifer Wakeman, Executive Director at DRIVE, tells us.

The region, known for its history of agriculture and Amish farms, has a growing healthcare sector and many opportunities in manufacturing and information technology. That being said, a business owner in any industry who feels intrigued by what the Susquehanna Valley has to offer should not hesitate to contact DRIVE for assistance with site selection, project management, funding incentives, and more. “We don’t like to be sector-specific, because if what we have meets your needs, then you should come here,” explains Wakeman. “However, some businesses that have succeeded and that I think will continue to grow in this region are healthcare and auxiliary businesses.”

For instance, Geisinger, a physician-led healthcare system for northeastern and central Pennsylvania, is headquartered at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Montour’s county seat. Geisinger employs about 8,000 people in the two counties—or about nine percent of the population—making the region a significant healthcare hub.

In addition to Geisinger, there are also several other community hospitals. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are always at a premium in Columbia and Montour.

To develop the growing IT sector and help other businesses to flourish as well, DRIVE is currently involved in a rural broadband initiative with its partners. Because Pennsylvania is uniquely agricultural yet hilly at the same time, broadband access is challenging, but the organization is working to make it available in every possible inch of both counties.

“Information technology is huge in this region, from Geisinger’s IT department down to smaller businesses that have 10 or 12 employees,” says Wakeman. “I think a big part of the reason is that this is a really neat place to live and work. It is inexpensive to live here or to set up a business here, so it’s a great place to be for start-ups.”

The area, which has roots in manufacturing, is also preparing for another boom due to an incoming business that is expected to soon become a major player. “I think that plastics manufacturing is going to continue to develop in the Columbia and Montour counties for a couple of reasons. First of all, the new cracker plant coming into Beaver County, outside of Pittsburgh. And we have ready access to those products via rail, which is the primary mode of transportation for those products,” Wakeman predicts.

“Cracker” is industry lingo for a facility that utilizes oil and gas and breaks it into smaller molecules to create ethylene, which is used in plastics manufacturing. The counties have access to an abundance of natural gas resources as a result of sitting on the Marcellus Shale play.

DRIVE will help incoming companies by using the ripple effect from the new cracker plant to bolster local businesses involved in plastics and polymers, and Wakeman is also expecting to see an uptick in interest from companies based in other parts of the country and the world. “The predictions are that once that cracker plant is up and running, we will see commodity prices for those products lower here than what they are in the Gulf Coast, which could mean huge dividends for us in terms of jobs and new business development.”

Additionally, Pennsylvania is an optimal location for any plastics manufacturer because of the presence of the Pennsylvania College of Technology, known by locals and students as “Penn College.” The public college, affiliated with Pennsylvania State University, has one of the premier plastics departments in the world. Indeed, Penn College’s plastics program is one of only six in the nation to be accredited by the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET, a nationally recognized accreditation non-profit.

“With the cracker plant coming, we are going to have a workforce trained by the most expert educators in plastics manufacturing,” says Wakeman, remarking that businesses she works with often speak highly of the region’s skilled and dedicated workforce. “The educational and workforce resources we have are outstanding, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a rural region.” At the moment, DRIVE is busy laying the groundwork for related businesses before the cracker plant is up and running, discovering the most optimal plots of land for new industry and preparing them for those who are interested.

On top of the plastics boom, the region has also opened new power plants and is experiencing growth in the oil and gas sector. DRIVE is working to improve infrastructure and ensure new companies are able to make use of these local energy sources, thus reducing their business costs.

Of course, whether your business is involved in the healthcare, manufacturing, or agricultural sector, rail access is an asset to any industry that needs to ship or receive products or equipment, and Norfolk Southern and shortline North Shore Railroad, based in Northumberland, serve the counties. The award-winning team at North Shore provides those last few miles of coverage to ensure that businesses are able to ship and receive products safely and efficiently. The shortline rail system, which was established more than 35 years ago, has resulted in a great amount of job creation, as it makes the counties all the more desirable for businesses.

Examples of companies that are expanding their business in the region include the packaged food giant Conagra, USG (United States Gypsum Corporation), and the thermoplastics manufacturer SEKISUI SPI.

Lack of traffic congestion also makes the area a great place to live and work because commutes are quick and easy. “Every town here is a little bit different, and it is not that unusual for people to travel between counties for work because we don’t have traffic. I drive 25 minutes to work, and I go about 22 miles. It’s very easy to get around,” Wakeman says.

Entrepreneurs who set up a business in Susquehanna Valley enjoy exploring the flavor that each part of it has to offer. There are old manufacturing towns such as Danville with deep histories in coal or rail, and there are also farmers’ villages with unique, hilly agricultural plots. The variety provides newcomers with a lot of different options for housing, depending on what they desire.

“There are always new housing developments in both Montour and Columbia counties, but we have everything from old, big, glorious homes from the early 1900s—there are some really amazing streets in Berwick, Bloomsburg, and Danville where there are a lot of historic homes—to newer developments along the Susquehanna River of luxury condominiums, single- or double-family homes,” Wakeman describes.

DRIVE collaborates closely with the Columbia/Montour Visitor’s Bureau to promote tourism and business travel to the area and encourage entrepreneurs or visitors to see if the region suits their tastes. Cultural and seasonal festivals in the lively boroughs of Danville, Montour County, or Bloomsburg and Berwick—both in Columbia County—draw in thousands of tourists every year, and each town is quite different.

Berwick has a unique military history. It is the home of the Stuart tank, built there during World War II. At the moment, the historic Berwick is being revitalized; its classic film theatres are being restored.

Danville is located on the north bank of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, making it a good location for people who enjoy nature activities. Montour Preserve, located in Danville, is a manmade lake that supplies water to a power plant, with a nearby acreage that hosts a maple syrup festival. It is a great place for bird watching and wildlife observation.

The town of Bloomsburg, also located along the Susquehanna, hosts the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, which was ranked #31 in Top Public Schools by U.S. News. In addition to Bloomsburg and Penn College, the private liberal arts colleges of Susquehanna University and Bucknell University are other options for those who wish to pursue higher education locally.

As many regional businesses, impressed with the counties’ workforce, offer flexible opportunities to go up the corporate ladder and receive on-the-job training, it isn’t uncommon for residents to study at home, work nearby, and build their entire careers at one or two companies.

“I know some really, really successful businesspeople who were born here, raised here, went to a local university, and stayed here,” Wakeman shares. “These are brilliant people doing amazing things, and they’re doing it right here because this is where they want to be. They could have gone anywhere and spent a lot of money on college, but they were able to get a topnotch education without having to go very far at all. I think the number of people who choose to stay in the community speaks volumes.”

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