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2016-06-24 / Community (County Spotlight)

Somerset County retains its industries while looking to the future

By Spencer Myers

Somerset County is located within 500 mile radius of two-thirds of the country’s population, and has I-76 and US 219 running through it. Construction for the relocation of US 219 was recently completed and the county is also planning to connect 219 to I-68 (the National Freeway). 
Photo Courtesy of Wendy Hampe Somerset County is located within 500 mile radius of two-thirds of the country’s population, and has I-76 and US 219 running through it. Construction for the relocation of US 219 was recently completed and the county is also planning to connect 219 to I-68 (the National Freeway). Photo Courtesy of Wendy Hampe With two major ski resorts and multiple trails and state parks all situated in the beautiful Laurel Highlands, Somerset County has earned the nickname the “Roof Garden of Pennsylvania.”

Residing in the pastoral wonder are major manufacturers like Highland Tank & Manufacturing and Rockwood Manufacturing Company all connected with easy access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

To see how Somerset County is growing despite recent setbacks in the coal and natural gas industries, Pennsylvania Business Central spoke to Gary Dufour, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Council (SCEDC), which was founded in 1957 and currently has over 150 members.

PBC: How long have you had your position at the SCED C and what was your past experience?

Dufour: I started with the council in November of 2012. Before that I worked with other municipalities and communities in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Throughout my career I’ve laid the groundwork for two development agencies and one port authority.

PBC: What sets your region apart as a place to live and a place to start your business?

Dufour: I think a couple of things that really set us apart are all of the options for outdoor activities. They are all great for anyone who wants to relocate here, especially younger folks looking to get away from urban centers and cities and live here and grow their businesses. The natural setting aids the quality of life for anyone here.

In addition, we are located right on I-76 and have an interchange with PA 601 that accesses 219. We are also seeing the completion of relocated US 219 from Somerset to Meyersdale and the completion of planning for connection of US 219 in Maryland to I-68 (the National Freeway).

PBC: How does the SCED ED C encourage development with small business owners and entrepreneurs?

Dufour: We have put additional resources on working with small business owners and are currently looking for grants to develop a new entrepreneurship program.

We’re focused on the middle group who need access to technology and resources more than younger entrepreneurs who may have access to the resources of colleges.

Currently we are looking to give microloans to companies that need them. [The SCEDC] is willing to fund up to 50 percent and I think that this certainly makes working with us look more attractive to potential borrowers.

So far it’s worked out pretty well.

Businesses funded by the program run the whole gamut; from architecture and engineering to restaurants and to tourism and tourism related businesses.

We also have negotiated a relationship with Southern Alleghenies Business Resource Network (SABRN) that allows them to participate and potentially double the loan. So if we are willing to loan $15,000 they could match it, growing it to $30,000 and keeping the interest at three percent.

This gives us a little bit more leverage in working with small businesses, but we are also able to look for companies who are larger and hoping to expand. We can loan up to $200,000.

In almost all cases we first have interested businesses work with [Saint Francis University’s] small business development center (SBDC) to verify their business plan and see if they are viable.

We try to work with the small entrepreneur as soon as they walk through the door.

The SBDC is currently putting a mentorship program together. They figured that they have a lot of capability and resources they ought to connect them and make it work.

PBC: What small business success stories have you seen recently?

Dufour: We had been working with this heavy equipment business for a couple years. They were looking to expand and had a hard time finding space. They had found a few options on their own but were looking for something different. They had divisions in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and one in Somerset. Their focus is on heavy trucks, street sweepers - all sorts of heavy equipment. Fortunately a building became available and we worked with [SABRN] to give them a $200,000 loan with their purchase. The expansion will most likely grow the Somerset branch from five to six employees to about 15 employees.

We are trying to work with companies like this to keep employment during the heavy losses in the coal industry. As soon as that occurred, several companies took a hit, and then the low natural gas prices only made things worse. So we have been working with these businesses and several agencies in relation to coal miners. We are also looking at reuse of some of the properties.

PBC: How is Somerset county adapted to the loss of jobs in the coal industry? Will the state government offer aid in reclamation?

Dufour: There will be some brownfield work that will have to be done. Pennsylvania has been a leader in reclamation.

I was just at a meeting with CareerLink about these job losses. Several [CareerLink] operators have had reasonable success with coal workers. Some will need more extensive retraining. The problem is that jobs in the coal industry are among the highest paying jobs in the county, so the pay rate will not be as good as they settle into other industries. That’s a difficult reality that we are struggling with.

PBC: Has the council increased its number of informational seminars over the years?

Dufour: We hold several a year, but have found that it is better to put all of the information online. That way the information is always there.

We are part of a foreign trade zone, so we have seminars on how companies can make use of that, and SABRN also puts their resources at the hand of any of our members of the SCEDC, so we want companies to know how to use these resources.

We are trying to eliminate as much confusion as possible and get people the information they need.

SABRN is now helping business with how to develop a website and reach new customers for free. They won’t directly make the website, but once you have everything else surrounding the website developed, the website comes easy.

PBC: Where will the greatest opportunities be in the future?

Dufour: We want to see more growth and capability in broadband. We want young people to be able to live here and work here and participate in regular business.

We are looking forward to millennials and future generations who won’t be tied down to a specific location. That means they can settle here and enjoy the positive aspects of Somerset County. The quality of life that comes with living in nature makes a good sales pitch for young people who want to bring their ideas here. That, I think, is the future. Retain your industries but keep an eye on how business is evolving. .

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