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Greater Latrobe, Derry Area high school students offer ideas for economic growth

| Tuesday, April 21, 2015, 2:00 p.m.
Derry Area High School Economics Teacher Jeff Kelly (green shirt), discusses ideas with seniors (from left) Latrobe's Isabelle Peglar, Derry's Ben Martin, and Sam Grace, during the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Exchange Day, held at Greater Latrobe High School April 16.  Students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area gathered to discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project also known as the Route 981 Corridor.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Derry Area High School Economics Teacher Jeff Kelly (green shirt), discusses ideas with seniors (from left) Latrobe's Isabelle Peglar, Derry's Ben Martin, and Sam Grace, during the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Exchange Day, held at Greater Latrobe High School April 16. Students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area gathered to discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project also known as the Route 981 Corridor.
Greater Latrobe's Gina Kovacevic (left) and Isabelle Peglar discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project during the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Exchange Day, held at Greater Latrobe High School April 16.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Greater Latrobe's Gina Kovacevic (left) and Isabelle Peglar discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project during the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Exchange Day, held at Greater Latrobe High School April 16.
A map students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area use to discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project also known as the Route 981 Corridor.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
A map students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area use to discuss future development plans for the Laurel Valley Project also known as the Route 981 Corridor.

If a connecting corridor between the Pennsylvania Turnpike at New Stanton and Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity ever comes to fruition, students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area high schools have their own ideas about how to spur economic growth.

Economic students proposed construction of a convention center, an amphitheater, a military base or a recreation center last week during the Greater Latrobe-Laurel Valley Chamber's annual Economic Exchange Day.

The long-sought Laurel Valley connector would link Route 30 with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, via an expanded Route 981. Westmoreland County officials have indicated the project is on the state's long list of proposed transportation improvement projects, but no approval has been granted.

About 50 students heard presentations from Gabe Monzo, airport authority executive director; Rachel Duda, PennDOT assistant district executive; William Beaumariage, PennDOT district portfolio manager; Brian Lawrence, assistant deputy director of the Westmoreland County Planning Department; Rick Ebert, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president from Blairsville; Ann Nemanic, vice president of partnership development for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau; and Mike O'Barto, Unity Township supervisor.

Then students were tasked with collaborating in small groups to brainstorm about ways to develop the proposed corridor near Routes 30 and 981.

Senior Izzy Peagler's group discussed adding an updated, modern drive-in movie theater with food-truck concessions near where the Hi-Way Drive-In was located.

“We need to bring in more businesses,” she said during the discussion.

Other student groups estimated their projects would take between 5 and 50 years to complete and up to $200 million, after hearing that to add a turnpike interchange alone would cost $34 million.

In past years, students have discussed proposals for Marcellus shale gas and oil drilling and rail-to-trail projects, said Randy Strayer of Latrobe Specialty Metals, who chairs the program with the chamber.

“There's no easy answer,” Strayer said. “... We want students to start thinking critically about those things in society, give them the background and have them start to form their own opinions on these issues.”

Greater Latrobe economics teacher Kara Olecki-Leeper said work in the classroom culminates with Economic Exchange Day.

“Land use and development is such an important part of economic growth that I make sure it's a topic we discuss to get the students thinking,” she said, adding that the collaborative nature replicates how projects come together in the community.

John Turack, executive director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension's Smart Growth Partnership, who participated in the exercise, said the extension would like to replicate the program across the state.

“It's a team effort” including the faculty, chamber and speakers, he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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