Commissioners: Diversified economy keeping Washington County on an even keel

February 25, 2016
Washington County commissioners Harlan Shober and Larry Maggi chat Thursday after they and Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan addressed Washington County Chamber members on the state of the county’s economy. - Michael Bradwell/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

While acknowledging the current downturn in the area’s energy industry, Washington County commissioners said Thursday the county’s diversified economy will keep things on an even keel until oil and gas turns around.

The message was part of the annual “State of the Economy” address presented to more than 250 members of Washington County Chamber of Commerce at the Hilton Garden Inn, Southpointe.

The day also highlighted more than 80 economic development projects that accounted for more than $350 million in capital investment in the county during the past year.

“Washington County has been truly exceptional in the Greater Pittsburgh region in creating new economic growth, energy development and commercial expansion,” said commissioners Chairman Larry Maggi.

According to Maggi, the business community announced more than $355 million in new business investment, which accounted for an additional 786 created or retained jobs during 2015 and occurred across all sectors, including commercial/retail development, hospitality, energy and manufacturing.

While the county did experience a jobless rate increase in six of the first seven months of 2015, the rate decreased in four of the final five months of the year, resulting in a current rate that is up only two-tenths of a percentage point from December 2014, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.

And despite the downturn in the natural gas production sector, Maggi cited statistics from the state Department of Environmental Protection that showed the county led the state in the number of unconventional well permits issued with a total of 261 of the 2,078 issued in 2015. The activity resulted in the county moving up from fourth place at the end of 2014 to third place in the state for permits issued since 2005.

The county also led the state in the number of unconventional wells drilled in 2015, with 160 of the 1,070 wells drilled statewide.

Beyond energy

Maggi was quick to note the county’s economic growth isn’t driven by energy alone, but by a variety of sectors.

He said the county is home to three of the largest manufacturing firms ranked by revenue in the region: Mylan Inc. (generic pharmaceuticals-fifth), Perryman Co. (titanium-28th) and Aquatech International (water treatment-29th). He added that three of the largest business consulting firms – Creehan & Co. (fifth), Newton Consulting LLC (ninth) and A.C. Coy Co. (10th) – are in the county.

“We are also very proud that we are home to the second-largest veteran-owned firm, AccuTrex Products, and the second-largest minority-owend firm, Pennsylvania Transformer Technology Inc. in the greater Pittsburgh region,” he said.

A separate presentation Thursday underscored the diverse nature of business in the county.

Ken Boben, Midwest area president for Crown Castle, noted that the company, which owns and manages 40,000 cellular telephone towers across North America, has grown its Southpointe operations to five separate locations in the park, where it now employs 866 people, with an annual payroll of more than $67 million.

Sharing the proceeds

Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan noted that in addition to the economic development success stories of the past year, the county continues to invest in infrastructure, business parks and community development projects through the Local Share Account program – its share of gross slots revenue from the Meadows Racetrack & Casino directed by the commissioners to economic development projects here.

“Since 2008, the LSA has invested more than $73 million in new economic development projects,” she said, adding that the amount has been matched with more than $208 million in additional federal, state and local money for a total of $281 million in total impact.

Growing tourism

The impact of tourism, discussed by Commissioner Harlan Shober, is also a growing contributor to the health of the county’s economy.

Citing data from the state Department of Community & Economic Development, Shober said the county’s tourism industry now supports nearly 6,000 jobs and generates more than $80 million in federal and state tax revenue.

The tourism industry is led by The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, he said, which last year hosted 5.3 million visitors, and spent $17.8 million on goods and services in the county.

“This, in addition to the $49.6 million the casino spent on payroll employing 1,357 people, demonstrates the positive impact the casino has both on tourism and our economy as a whole,” Shober said.

Thursday’s program also included the unveiling of the county’s new tourism website, “visitwashingtoncounty.com.” Maggi said the new site was developed to increase user ease and access to the county’s tourism assets and to promote the county to both business and leisure travelers.

During a panel discussion, Irey Vaughan, in responding to how the downturn in energy has impacted the county, said that energy accounts for just 15 percent of jobs in the region.

While acknowledging that the sector experienced a 14.7 percent decline in jobs last year, and revenue from the Act 13 impact fees declined by 17 percent statewide, “we’re not feeling that as much here,” she said.

“We still remain very positive,” Irey Vaughan said. “This is a cyclical industry and it’s going to be back.”

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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