Westmoreland County to court employers, foster growth
Unemployment in Westmoreland County is down and home sales are up — signs that the county economy is on an upward trajectory, officials said on Thursday.
The county's three commissioners told about 180 business leaders at a Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce gathering at Ferrante's Lakeview in Hempfield that efforts will intensify in 2014 to bring new jobs and businesses to the county.
“Our job is to keep Westmoreland County open for business. I'm optimistic when you look to our future growth in economic development,” said Commissioner Charles Anderson.
Westmoreland's unemployment rate of 6.8 percent is below state and national averages of 7.3 and 7.5 percent, respectively, commissioners said. That's from a high of 9.9 percent in February 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average price of homes sold in Westmoreland County increased by 4.6 percent, and the number of sales rose by 10.6 percent, according to commissioners.
Commissioner Tyler Courtney said the county industrial park program generated $4.8 million in revenue from property taxes last year.
The industrial parks have a 23 percent vacancy rate, with 123 businesses as tenants that employ more than 9,000 workers. “A lot of people want to be in Westmoreland County,” Courtney said.
Westmoreland's success has come at the expense of neighboring Allegheny County, Robert P. Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a later telephone interview.
“The growth in retail and the service economy reflects population shifts due to two things — school quality and housing prices,” Strauss said. “I think there is a regional tilt to Westmoreland County.”
There's still work to do, according to chamber President Chad Amond.
“Workforce development issues continue to hold us back. There are job openings, but there's difficulty finding people to fill them,” Amond said.
He cited the lack of advanced machine operators and welders.
Commissioners said the opening of Westmoreland County Community College's new workforce development program this year will help to reverse that shortcoming.
Officials said the county will continue to see economic growth because of success at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.
Three years ago, it had no passenger traffic. Last year about 250,000 passengers flew on the airport's lone commercial carrier, Spirit Airlines.
Passenger traffic is expected to grow to more than 300,000 this year, Anderson said.
“My concern is all of our eggs are in one basket. We're actively seeking another carrier and want to look east towards Washington, Boston and New York (as destinations),” Anderson said.
Commissioners said construction of a long planned highway linking the airport to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a priority for the county.
Economic development will get another push through the creation of a new Land Bank to oversee the rehabilitation of dilapidated and blighted properties, Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
The new agency, formed last month, will attempt to buy the abandoned Monsour Medical Center along Route 30 in Jeannette, demolish it and rehabilitate the site.
“All that will be left is an attractive piece of property,” Kopas said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or email@example.com.