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2017-07-14 / Community (County Spotlight)

Westmoreland County struggles with population decline

Spotlight on Westmoreland County
By Kris B. Mamula
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

(AP) – Westmoreland County lost more population between 2010 and 2016 than any other county in Pennsylvania, peeling away jobs and businesses in a place brimming with local governments, water supply and treatment agencies and school districts.

New thinking is needed to reverse the decline, to improve local government collaboration, Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas told the audience at a strategic planning hearing at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood.

“One of the hardest things to do is to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Kopas said in introductory remarks at the hearing, which drew about three dozen county residents. “Think big. Think boldly.”

But as the audience rose and made their way to breakout sessions on transportation, population retention and other topics, only one person remained in the auditorium for the workshop on reshaping municipal services: community college president Tuesday Stanley.

The hearing spotlighted the challenges facing planners as they try to attract young people and high-tech jobs to a rural county that’s facing big-city problems including a rising tide of heroin overdoses and other ills. Experts say the fix won’t be easy.

A slipping population and evaporating jobs coincide with the county’s update of its comprehensive plan, dubbed Reimagining Westmoreland County. With the help of a private consultant, dozens of public hearings like the one on May 31, have been held to get resident input, with a final plan due in 2018.

Fewer people is only part of the challenge facing Westmoreland; the county is also increasingly gray. One-in-five residents are age 65 or older in Westmoreland, easily topping Pennsylvania’s rate of 17 percent and the U.S. rate of 15 percent. Allegheny County is also gray, but the problem is less severe with 16.9 percent of the population 65 or older.

“What you have is this bulge of elderly people going through the system” in Westmoreland County, said Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York City-based think tank. “Even the healthcare industry can’t sustain these places as the population shrinks.

“That’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight.”

In Westmoreland County, which is half covered in forest and 17 percent farmed, the population slipped 2.6 percent or 9,664 to 355,458 people between 2010 and 2016, according to census data. By comparison, Allegheny County’s population inched upward 0.1 percent to 1.2 million people during the same period.

Meanwhile, Westmoreland County’s economy has taken a hit, with the number of employers declining 4.5 percent to 8,683 in 2014 from 9,094 in 2005, according to census data, while the total workforce contracted 3.2 percent to 123,755 in 2014 from 127,886 in 2005.

Hospital system Excela Health is Westmoreland’s biggest employer with 4,500 employees, followed by medical products maker Philips Respironics, 1,600, and United Parcel Service, 1,500, according to the county’s industrial development authority. But few startups are moving to Westmoreland County towns, many of which, like Jeannette, are struggling for a new identity after the collapse of heavy manufacturing.

“Think about it: there’s nothing here,” said Jeannette City Mayor Richard Jacobelli, a municipality that’s home to 9,400 people and where poverty ranges between 12.7 percent and 21.2 percent depending on the neighborhood. Jacobelli lost the primary election and will leave office in December.

“We have no industrial base or anything to encourage people to live here.

“Do you see any high-tech around here? Even if we offered businesses free taxes for five years, that wouldn’t be enough to entice them to come here.”

Westmoreland County’s population peaked in 1980 at 392,294, two years before the closure of Jeannette Glass, which gave the 2.3-square-mile city its moniker, the Glass City.

In the decades since the plant was shuttered, Jeannette has been hollowed out by a population free fall, sinking 28.2 percent to 9,400 people today from 13,106 in 1980, according to census data, as the town struggles to find its footing.

Located at the heart of Westmoreland and about 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, with a thrift shop, mom-and-pop diners and shuttered storefronts along the once thriving Clay Avenue business district, Jeannette mirrors many small towns in the county, roiled by the decline of heavy industry.

Jeannette City School District, for example, drew $300,000 from reserve funds this year to balance its budget as enrollment eroded 20 percent over the last decade to 998 students, Superintendent Matthew Hutcheson said. To balance next year’s budget, a furlough of nine of the systems’s 93 employees — a first for the Jeannette school system — is needed, along with a small tax increase.

Fifty-eight seniors graduated from Jeannette High School June 2, fewer than half the number of first graders who started 12 years earlier.

The town’s last supermarket closed in the early 1990s as school district enrollment numbers began bouncing around in recent years, reflecting evictions as families are forced to pull up stakes during the school year. Nearby school districts report the same up-and-down enrollment cycles, Hutcheson said.

“It’s such a transient population,” he said. “It’s not good for the kids. The money is not there, just like all of the other school districts.”

Other Westmoreland County school districts also are struggling. Sixteen full-time positions were cut to balance Hempfield Area School District’s budget next school year; Monessen School District, located in a city where nearly one in five residents live in poverty, was considering furloughing 10 employees.

As the Westmoreland County economy shriveled, redevelopment slowed to a crawl in an area that’s trying to shake off the trappings of an industrial past, including Jeannette Glass, which went bankrupt in 1982 after fueling the economy for nearly 100 years.

Thirty-five years after company closed, pockmarked by years of legal battles, the county took ownership of the crumbling plant. Cleanup of asbestos and other hazardous materials started in early June.

Ten miles away is RIDC Westmoreland, an industrial park with the equivalent of nearly 50 football fields under roof.

Despite $178 million in government aid spent luring various companies over the past four decades, the complex was only about half leased until late June when Siemens Energy said it would consolidate two Pittsburgh area divisions in 230,000-square-feet at the facility.

About 600 people work at small companies at the industrial park, where Volkswagen cars and pickup trucks and later big-screen Sony television screens were manufactured. VW employed about 2,500 people. More than 3,000 people were later employed at the Sony Technology Center before it was shuttered in 2010.

Recently, high-tech battery maker Aquion Energy, named Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Top 100 Smartest Companies in 2015 and 2016, filed for bankruptcy in March, throwing 115 people out of work.

East Huntingdon Township, home to 7,943 people, where the sprawling plant is located, is among the pockets of poverty in the county: the number of people living under the federal poverty level ranges up to 18.2 percent, exceeding the county, state and national averages, according to census data.

“The kids go to college, they get their trade and they always ask the same question and it’s, ‘where do we find jobs?’ ” said Mount Pleasant Mayor Jerry Lucia, 71, who worked at the Volkswagen plant from 1979 until 1988 as a benefits representative, but whose daughter Nicole had to move away to find a full-time position as an X-ray technician. “There’s no jobs in this area.”

New investment

But there is good news for Westmoreland County: Siemens is building a 60,000-square-foot building in addition to leasing space at the former Sony plant, drawing more than $100 million in new investment in the coming year. And Penn State University has opened a small business incubator in New Kensington, an aging industrial city where nearly one out of four people live in poverty, according to census data.

“This is an experiment, as most entrepreneur centers go where there are already amenities and support,” Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider said in a prepared statement.

In addition, the community college will give junior high students their first taste of high-tech additive manufacturing this summer; tourism in the Laurel Highlands, which includes Westmoreland and two adjoining counties, generated $1.8 billion in 2014; and a handful of Marcellus shale gas companies have opened up shop in recent years.

Reimagining Westmoreland will guide municipal and county government officials in restoring prosperity to all of the county’s Jeannettes — that’s the intent of the document. Diversity, public transportation and local government collaboration to improve efficiency and reduce costs are among the issues that will be addressed in the plan.

Back in Jeannette, police have been busy pushing back against crime more common in inner cities, which included breaking up a heroin distribution ring in February and the shooting death in April of a 32-year- old man in front of the St. Vincent de Paul store, in the shadow of the old glass plant.

“The loss of property values, the opioid crisis that was something we saw in Philadelphia and Chicago in the 1970s,” said Steve Conn, professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “That’s what’s become of lots of these little towns death by a thousand cuts.”

“The poorest places in the country are rural areas,” he said. “That’s where the poverty has rooted now.” .

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