By PAT CROSSLEY
“This part of Pennsylvania has a dedicated workforce, highly skilled in manufacturing positions. That’s sort of our DNA here,” said Shawn McLaughlin, planning director at the Union County Government Center, of the “southern tier” — Columbia, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties.
Bob Garrett, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce agreed.
“Every time I talk to a company that’s expanding or one that’s looking at our area, it’s our workforce,” Garrett said.
“We have a labor force in the Greater Susquehanna Valley, which includes Williamsport, we have a workforce that can compete against any labor force any where in the world. We’ve seen that,” he added.
He noted when the local Woodmode manufacturing closed, workers who were interested in staying in the labor force, immediately either found new jobs or went into training to get the skills they needed.
“The labor force, the work ethic, they show up not just on time but ahead of time they stay late when necessary,” he stated.
“Their pencils are always sharp. and they’re ready to get to work and make their companies a success.
They understand their success and that whole region’s success depends on them and what they do everyday,” he stressed.
Other pros noted by McLaughlin were the quality of life, small communities and a rural countryside where crime is not an issue and the commute times are short, in this area with a combined population of 260,873 as of the last census.
“The cost of living is lower, there are excellent public schools, universities and energy costs are reasonable. Land is relatively affordable compared to other markets,” he said, adding, “we have a lot of positives here.”
“The transportation system is excellent, we have interstates, we have rail service available, particularly to manufacturers,” he said.
Garrett cited the new Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway as a definite plus for the area in attracting new businesses.
“It has created a lot of spinoff effect. We knew that the thruway itself would create somewhere around 1500 direct or indirect jobs, but what we’re really starting to see is a lot of interest in some long dormant properties and some other economic opportunities. We knew it was going to happen when the thruway opened, but I don’t think we expected it to start already,” Garrett said.
The northern section of the thruway and the bridge across the Susquehanna River is expected to be completed in 2022, with the Southern section five years later. Garrett said the entire project will be completed in this decade.
Garrett also noted the current expansion of broad band internet as an important issue for attracting businesses.
“That can only help with our efforts to retain businesses we have, grow those businesses and attract new businesses,” Garrett said.
In another area of the Southern Tier last year alone, the Milton Area Industrial Development Association, the economic arm of the Central PA Chamber of Commerce, had obtained Keystone Opportunity Zone status for ten parcels of land in Northumberland County, according to Tea Jay Aikey, president and CEO of the chamber.
As of now, eight of the parcels have been sold and there are talks underway with potential projects for the remaining two this year.
Aikey shared that a deteriorating and underutilized site was purchased and is being repurposed as the flagship site for a manufacturer located in Union County.
The business, Aikey said, “has outgrown their site and were potentially moving out of state, but now are relocating to a new facility in Northumberland County.”
Because of the additional space the business will be able to increase the number of employees and continue growing, she said. The move is expected later this spring.
Another program to aid economic and business growth in the area was the Pledged Asset Loan.
The PAL program allows any member financial institution to be the lender of choice by each individual member opting to use the program, Aikey said.
“The program is meant to help those businesses who need a little assistance securing their business loan,” she added.
The Central PA Chamber, which has been in existence for 115 years has also experienced growth with the highest amount of members in their history.
“In 2019 we have participated in over 25 ribbon cuttings to celebrate new businesses, expansions, etc. In 2019 have also hosted (offered) over 30 seminars and trainings for our members as well to continue to support our Mission Statement of being the preferred Resource Center,” Aikey added.
Union County is also growing at a “pretty good pace,” according to McLaughlin.
He noted that small businesses like the new brewery in the Lewisburg area, Jackass Brewery, which will have a brewery with a restaurant associated to it, are moving into the area.
There is a new hotel being built in the Penn House Commons, a development where Giant Food Stores is located, McLaughlin said. It is being done by the same group that created the Miller Center for Wellness and Recreation, which has since been sold to Evangelical Community Hospital and Geisinger Medical Center.
“They are also planning an expansion to the Miller Center to add a community indoor pool,” McLaughlin said, although he wasn’t sure of the timeline for that project.
There has also been an uptick in the number of physicians offices that have opened over the last year.