Greater diversity, less regulation: Westmoreland looks for keys to growth
Necessary for Westmoreland County to grow its economy and population are reduced regulations to attract and retain businesses, aligning education and workforce needs, expanded transportation and affordable housing options and being open to younger, more diverse residents.
Those are among the main challenges the county faces, according to about 70 people who gathered Wednesday at Irwin's Lamp Theatre for a “Reimagining Our Westmoreland” workshop — the second of three such events county officials hosted to solicit input on its comprehensive plan.
A third workshop is planned for 3-5 p.m. Dec. 6 at Penn State New Kensington's conference center.
The comprehensive plan will help inform the county about where it should do better and how to achieve that, said County Commissioner Ted Kopas. County leaders will review input early next year and conduct public hearings on a draft version before approving a new comprehensive plan in 2018.
The county's population fell from about 400,000 residents in 1988 to fewer than 360,000 in 2015. To reverse that trend, the county must retain residents and “drastically improve the migration rate” by adding people of different races and backgrounds, said Brian Lawrence, assistant deputy director of the county's planning department.
Without younger workers to replace the growing ranks of retirees, employers will not want to locate here, Lawrence said.
Though the county has five colleges — Seton Hill University, St. Vincent College, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Penn State New Kensington and Westmoreland County Community College — graduates are not remaining here, said Brian Fleckenstein, an English teacher at North High School.
To keep young adults, there must be growth in high-tech jobs and an easier way to reach Pittsburgh — where those jobs currently are located, said Paul Adams, a Hempfield Area School Board member and Pitt-Greensburg professor.
A lack high-tech jobs coupled with a lack of diversity hurts attempts to keep college graduates in the county, said Gary Nelson of Hempfield.
The county is 95 percent white, with African-Americans accounting for just 2.5 percent of the population, said Rod Booker, retired Hempfield Area band instructor.
Booker said he sees “a fear of change” that is hurting the county.
“We have to work as a team, not as two opposing teams,” he said.
Ernest Horton of Murrsyville said both of his children left the area because they could not find work.
A mindset change is needed because there is “too much parochialism” that holds up growth, particularly economic development, said Donald Paulone, a Hempfield developer.
Andrew Thornton of Ligonier, a member of the comprehensive plan action committee, sees a lack of respect for small business.
Barry Kroll of Jeannette said the county is stagnant, so much so that he said he and his wife are considering moving to Allegheny County.
“It's been the same for 20 years,” Kroll said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or email@example.com.