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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Old partners, new plastics: Setting politics aside to secure the Beaver County 'cracker' plant

| Saturday, June 25, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

This is the way government is supposed to work.

When Republican Tom Corbett was governor of Pennsylvania, he persuaded Royal Dutch Shell executives to locate a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County. And when Shell recently announced it was moving forward, current governor and Democrat Tom Wolf praised his predecessor for doing the heavy lifting.

It took both governors and political parties to get the project to the threshold of reality, but Wolf had high praise for Corbett.

“By the time I got to the process, the deals, the big part for the most part was done,” Wolf said. “It was just moving forward with continuing to convince them that this was a really smart investment.”

This is the best economic news in decades. Called a “cracker” plant, the facility will process ethane from the Marcellus shale fields and turn it into the building blocks of plastic — plastic that will be used to make nearly everything. It will take 6,000 construction workers to build the plant and 600 employees to operate it. And it is expected to spawn a new industry here.

It is big political news, too. In this partisan era, the leader of one party frequently gives short shrift to projects started by the leader of the other party. And mutual praise is rare, especially after a bruising political campaign like the one in which Wolf defeated Corbett.

This is how it used to be when government was the catalyst for major economic development, contributing seed money and assistance that would be followed by even greater private investment. It is a calculated gamble but a $1 billion tax credit here is expected to lead to many billions in private investment.

A mixed economy, in which government and business acted as partners, led to unimaginable economic and social prosperity in the past century. In their book “American Amnesia,” Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that too many leaders now see government as the enemy, depriving us of the one-two punch that made us great.

Government and business acting in tandem first built Pittsburgh, then transformed it. The mixed economy became a Pittsburgh trademark. Democrat and post-World War II mayor David L. Lawrence partnered with business to save the city. Republican leader Elsie Hillman spent her life bringing business and industry to the table for too many civic projects to mention.

Corbett said that he never doubted Wolf would keep the project moving because it was supported by Democrats, Republicans and business and union leaders. But everybody gets this, and guys like Corbett and Wolf can point to a lesson from generations ago.

Way back in 1967, in “The Graduate,” young Ben Braddock is collared by a family friend who offers the directionless lad some unsolicited career advice.

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics,” the older man says. “There's a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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