Beaver County, Pennsylvania is growing, and collaboration is driving it. Hard hit by industrial decline, particularly in its steel mills, the region showed its fighting spirit and is once again prospering, the community coming together with shared goals and an action plan.
The loss of a primary industry was a hard hit to come back from, but Beaver County came together and found a way to recover. Small business and entrepreneurship played a significant role in this economic recovery, and today, these same businesses find themselves gearing up for the battle of their lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed its share of hardships across the business community, but small business has been disproportionately affected. These businesses often have less of a buffer to cushion the financial knock of extended closures or slowdowns. They lack the resources and infrastructure that larger companies can lean on.
Nevertheless, the businesses left standing are picking up the pieces and adapting to the new normal, ensuring that employees and customers are safe. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce are part of the collective effort to diversify, strengthen and once again grow Beaver County.
Strong, local roots
Naturally, small business is receiving much of the attention to ensure they have the resources and support necessary to see this through.
Helen Kissick, President and CEO of the Chamber, explains: “We’ve been working over the last several months on a marketing campaign that we can offer small retailers and service providers who may not have their own marketing program. So there is advertising in windows, and there are websites that you can utilize. Most importantly, we call it ‘Rooted Locally’, because we care for each other, and we support neighboring business.”
Like the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce, the Beaver County Corporation for Economic Development (CED) too is dedicated to the goal of helping business in the county “survive and thrive,” as Kissick says.
Lewis Villotti, president of CED, provides some insight into the organization’s role: “What we look to do as we move forward is to promote economic development and economic activities within the county. We focus on business retention, expansion and attraction and during COVID we threw everything out the window.”
For Villotti, the focus has shifted. “What do our companies need? What does the county need? We do whatever we can to fill those voids.” This includes working together to share information, resources and build the quantity, and quality, of support available to businesses and residents in Beaver County.
A quick rebound
Unlike small businesses, manufacturing has generally rebounded quickly after an initial slowdown.
“In the beginning we were working with several prospects,” Villotti says, “and I was really afraid it was going to slow down. There was a month’s hiatus as everybody adjusted and began to understand what the new playing field was going to look like and how we were going to do business, and after that it started picking up again.”
Villotti and Kissick both pointed out that although there is still great uncertainty at present, now is the time to take advantage of low financing rates to make necessary investments and upgrades. As Kissick says, “When you’re forced to shut down, now is the time.” The conditions are right to, “take advantage of a disadvantageous situation.”
The CED offers a funding program that matches that of the state – the lowest lending rate available statewide. “All of their lending products are at 1.75 percent,” Villotti says, “and we match that here – 1.75 percent internal interest rate. If you are looking to do something, now is the time to do it.”
Both Kissick and Villotti are relatively new to their roles in their respective organizations but this has played in their favor as they have leaned on each other from the outset, learning together and finding the collective strength necessary to vigorously tackle the challenges that their organizations, their members, and the community are facing.
“The more we coordinate effectively, the more effective we are. We cannot solve this on our own,” Kissick says. “Very early on, Lew said, ‘If you can focus on the small retail businesses and the service providers, that is not really our sweet spot. You deal with that end of it and we’ll try to keep running with the manufacturing side of it.’ And it was a good call.”
One of the greatest advantages for Beaver County is its location in Western Pennsylvania with access to the Marcellus Shale play. As such, the region has been selected as the new home of Shell’s Chemical Cracker Plant, a major construction project that is bringing billions of dollars of investment for the Tri-State region.
As Villotti describes it, “Having 7,000 construction workers working a couple miles from your county seat, really helps when it comes to supporting some of our local business,” and efforts are continuously being made to leverage the spin-off benefits of this investment.
Further to the activity taking place at the Shell site, Amazon too has announced plans to invest in the area – in neighboring Allegheny County – and will draw its workforce from the region, including from Beaver County, which is sure to have a positive economic impact.
Shoring up the workforce
Talent and workforce development is certainly a focus and an asset for Beaver County, and it is another shining example of how the community comes together in the interest of economic strength and prosperity.
The educational institutions in Beaver County are very active. From kindergarten through grade 12 to Community College of Beaver County (CCBC), the Beaver campus of Penn State University, Geneva College, and Robert Morris University, all are working with industry and other economic stakeholders to ensure that the streams of study available in the county align with the needs of industry.
“Workforce is one thing that we don’t have enough of,” Kissick says. “A shortage of the right skills at the right place at the right time. So we’ve been working hard to educate parents, as well as students, about opportunities in the chemical or process tech industries.”
One of the region’s greatest assets on the workforce development front is the CCBC Shell Center for Process Technology Education, a multi-million-dollar investment that receives support from public and private entities to help prepare workers in the petrochemical and manufacturing industries.
“Don’t just think Shell, though it has the Shell name on it,” says Kissick. “It also helps the water technology sector and others that we have in the region to build a workforce that can readily step into these well-paying, important jobs in process technology, distribution and manufacturing.”
Other notable workforce-development efforts that are taking place in Beaver County include the process technology program administered by Penn State Beaver in the Erie area, as well as Job Training Beaver County. All are playing their part to ensure that there is a well-educated, well trained, and skilled workforce available.
Education in a time of flux
Beaver County is also home to PA Cyber, which is addressing the need for education and training in the age of COVID. PA Cyber is one of the largest, most revered online public schools in the U.S. and serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The company is headquartered in Midland, in Beaver County, and operates support offices state-wide to serve students with an exceptional online education without charging tuition.
Kissick notes that the education provider has grown since it was established in 2000. “They have 800 employees now with $51 million spent in this county. They’ve been kind of quiet, and in the background, but they serve the county and virtual learning across Pennsylvania.”
There is a lot to be proud of here, from the work of the partners and stakeholders to the communities themselves. It is no wonder that Beaver County has been declared one of the best places to live in Pennsylvania.
Communities in Beaver County are walkable, there is access to amenities and recreation, residents and businesses enjoy proximity and logistical connectivity and there is a collective desire to work together to improve the quality of life on offer. “We’re working very hard as a region – the Pittsburgh region – to make this an area where folks are inclined to stay,” says Kissick.
The leadership and residents of Beaver County have a clear idea of the kind of community they want to be, and are doing everything they can to make it a reality. Collaborative strategies, collective planning and execution, and aligned goals and resources are promoting enviable growth and development – even in the face of a pandemic.