Westmoreland County comprehensive plan to focus on creating, retaining jobs
Completion of Westmoreland County's vision for the future will be delayed several months as planners work to increase its focus on the need to retain and create job opportunities.
The county's planning director, Jason Rigone, said Monday that work on a new comprehensive plan will intensify during early 2018 to include the formation of seven focus groups to explore components of the areas of need that were targeted through public sessions and surveys conducted this year.
“We've decided to broaden the scope of our economic development strategy,” Rigone said. “After considering a lot of the information given to us by the public, we felt to increase the effectiveness of the plan we had to further develop this analysis. People move to an area or stay in an area because of jobs.”
To that end, county commissioners on Monday amended the contract with Houseal Lavigne Associates, the Chicago-based consulting firm hired in 2016 to draft the plan. The firm originally was paid $249,000 to craft the blueprint over 18 months. But as the project progressed, county officials decided that more work was needed.
Originally planned to be completed early in 2018, a final document isn't expected to be ready for approval until summer at the earliest.
Rigone said the additional costs for the consulting work will be covered under the project's overall $309,000 budget, which includes money given to the county by Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County, the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce and the First Energy Foundation.
Commissioners previously allocated $214,000 of taxpayer money for the plan, which is expected to replace a similar document prepared in 2005 that officials said was never followed.
Planning sessions this year focused on seeking public input of county needs and ranking priorities to be addressed in the plan. The additional money will pay for creation of up to seven public engagement sessions and a more intensive focus on economic development.
“We've had great results from the public,” said commissioners Chairwoman Gina Cerilli. “The only way this is actually going to work is to get additional participation.”
Detailed discussions of seven priorities identified in early planning stages will begin in January through focus groups that will involve experts in specific fields to create recommendations and strategies to be incorporated in the final plan, according to Rigone.
Those focus groups will explore topics such as retaining and attracting more county residents; improving economic development opportunities; enhancing neighborhoods through housing and blight prevention and elimination; preservation of existing quality of life features such as agricultural and recreation areas, health systems; community facilities, culture and entertainment; transportation; land use; and the sharing of municipal services.
Officials expect the comprehensive plan to provide a blueprint for growth and help reverse the steady population loss of past decades. Most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates put the population at 358,000, down from 370,000 in the 2000 census.
Westmoreland Chamber President Chad Amond said the additional time devoted to the comprehensive plan will benefit the final document.
“We're embracing it. From our perspective, we need to make sure this is as comprehensive and engaging as possible. If that means it will take a couple of additional months, so be it,” Amond said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.