Chamber discusses workforce, state budget, airport | News

The Indiana County Chamber of Commerce held its monthly board of directors meeting May 12 at the Indiana Country Club in White Township.

The board discussed many important issues including workforce development, the state budget, IUP commencement, the Jimmy Stewart Airport and more.

Chamber President Mark Hilliard began his report by discussing the chamber’s emphasis on workforce development and updated the board on the status of a number of initiatives involving the Indiana County public school districts. The Indiana County Ready program, which focuses on essential skills for juniors and seniors in high school, is coming to the end of its third year. The chamber is also continuing work on the Excellence in Education Awards, which will begin in the fall and culminate in one Indiana County student and one Indiana County teacher being awarded a car in spring 2023 from Colonial Motor Mart and Colonial Toyota.

“When we talk to businesses, it is clear that the challenge still at the top of the list is finding and retaining capable employees,” Hilliard said. “We want to continue to explore ways to help address that challenge immediately; however, a large part of our focus is on preparing the workforce of the near future so that we are not still fighting the same battle five years from now.”

Hilliard reported that work is underway on the development of the criteria for the student and teacher of the year, and that the goal is to have the details of the initiative completed prior to the start of summer break in order to hit the ground running when the new school year starts.

“We have banners being placed in each school district, we are going to promote this heavily over the next year, and we want to build a lot of excitement among all students and teachers,” Hilliard said. “We are hoping that this will improve overall morale while at the same time increasing motivation and the focus on the skills necessary to succeed both in the classroom and at life.”

Hilliard concluded his report by discussing a number of upcoming events on the chamber’s schedule. The chamber’s annual golf outing will be held Thursday at the Links at Spring Church, and the Annual Indiana County Business Hall of Fame banquet will take place June 23.

“The next couple of months are going to be very busy for us and for the community,” Hilliard said. “I would encourage everyone to be a part of at least one of these great events as they all provide different opportunities for networking and learning about the great things currently happening and soon to be happening in Indiana County.”

Hilliard said that these events are open to the public. Space is limited. Spots can be reserved by contacting the chamber office at (724) 465-2511.

County Commissioner Sherene Hess began the county’s report by noting that the county is a step closer to some 15 miles of mine drainage cleanup on Blacklick Creek after signing an agreement with First Energy to further enable electric service at the Wehrum Water Treatment Plant at the Rexis Access Area of the Ghost Town Trail. Commenting on the growing inquiries for places to eat and camp and otherwise enhance the use of the GTT, Hess repeated how important the commercial component of outdoor recreation is to local economies.

Hess reported that the county has awarded to dozens of businesses around the county the entire $1.23 million that had been funded through the Economic Development Administration’s CARES Act Revolving Loan Fund.

“These loans had enabled dozens of small businesses to retain hundreds of existing employees or generate new employment opportunities in Indiana County,” Hess said.

Hess mentioned that the county Office of Planning and Development has produced the draft Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO), which is on view for public comment until July 1. The SALDO, which replaces the current subdivision ordinance, is an instrument that protects the municipality and the property owner and promotes responsible development and brings the county into the 21st century related to land use.

On the workforce development front, Hess reported that construction of the Westmoreland County Community College at the Indiana County Education and Technology Center campus is nearing completion. The career and technical training facility will provide needed instruction for in-demand trades and the health care fields, which are growing in need much faster than average for all occupations. The county is investing about $3 million into the development of the $8 million project.

The county report concluded with the board being informed that the county had approved two Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance ordinances, which mirror similar ordinances passed by Burrell Township and Indiana Borough.

“With these ordinances, the county and the other taxing authorities are able to exempt improvements to the property from increased property tax for a limited period of time, thus enabling the property owners to save money for a time,” Hess reported.

State Rep. Jim Struzzi began the state report by discussing feedback he received recently from three separate town hall meetings that his office recently conducted within his district. Struzzi said that it is important to conduct these types of meetings to ensure that constituents from all areas of the district stay informed on all of the issues affecting the commonwealth and the region.

“There is an overall sense that a lot of folks are facing heavy burdens right now with the increases in costs on food, gas, and more,” Struzzi explained. “The number one issue we still hear about, though, is broadband. We have made some significant progress in this area, but we are going to continue to work with our partners in the county to attempt to reach these underserved areas.”

Struzzi continued his report by discussing the current status of the state budget and issuing a word of a caution regarding the positive revenue numbers.

“Revenues continue to pace above expectations,” Struzzi reported. “However, we need to be very cautious with our spending, as many are anticipating that this is a trend that will not continue for very long.”

The state report was concluded with words of optimism from Struzzi on the future of Indiana County.

“I think it is important for everyone to know that there truly are a lot of really good things happening right now throughout the district and a lot of positive developments in the works,” Struzzi stated. “In spite of so much of the negativity we hear from time to time, it is important for people to hear that good things are on the way.”

Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Dr. Michael Driscoll began the education report by discussing the recent spring commencement ceremony that took place on campus.

“It was wonderful to be a part of a normal, in-person commencement ceremony and to see so many students take part in it,” Driscoll said. “This was one of the highest percentages of walking graduates that we have seen in some time.”

Driscoll also updated the board on the search to fill a number of important vacancies at the university over the next couple of months.

“We are proud to announce that Dr. Lara Luetkahans is our new provost and vice president of academic affairs,” Driscoll announced. “However, the search is still underway for the dean of the Eberly College of Business as well as a new director of financial aid and university police chief. We hope to have these vacancies filled very soon.”

Driscoll continued the education report by discussing the 15.7 percent increase in base funding for the State System of Higher Education recently announced by Gov. Tom Wolf and how it will help the SSHE remain competitive.

“Pennsylvania’s funding for its state system has recently been one of the lowest in the nation,” Driscoll stated. “This will help us to take a big step into changing that and becoming more a more competitive option.”

Driscoll reported that the SSHE will continue to explore other avenues of funding to continue to help address that competitive disadvantage, including the American Rescue Plan.

Jimmy Stewart Airport Manager Rick Fuellner updated the board on recent happenings at the airport. Fuellner began his update by discussing the recently opened Riziki Café in the main terminal building.

“Riziki Café has been very successful and, because of that, we have noticed increased traffic for the airport both on foot and through the air,” Fuellner said.

Fuellner continued his report by discussing an Open House that will be held at the airport from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday. The purpose will be to discuss the airport’s master plan study that has been in the works. Riziki Café will be supplying refreshments.

Fuellner also reported that the airport is working with IndiGO bus company to now provide bus transportation to and from the airport. Fuellner’s report concluded with an update on the upcoming Jimmy Stewart Airshow on July 9-10.

“We have some amazing things planned this year, including some of the crowd favorite performers that we’ve had in the past, incredible aerobatics and terrific events for the whole family,” Fuellner said.


Linda Gwinn with the Blairsville Community Development Authority informed the board that Indiana County’s Active Transportation proponents through the WalkWorks program and the state are developing “Active Transportation Plans” to make walking, biking and other modes of active transportation in our communities safer, easier and more accessible for everyone.

According to Gwinn, the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development and the state have contracted with consultants to help facilitate the gathering of input from community members and elected officials on what biking and walking enhancements, trail connections, facilities and amenities, safety and access improvements, and connections to community destinations residents want to see in their communities.

Gwinn said that Indiana County wants everyone in the community to have a voice in this process. The plan will be discussed with maps to identify areas of interest, as well as a forum for comments about the plans being developed, by input at the forum on June 8 beginning at 7 p.m. at The Fountain Bar at the Chestnut Ridge Resort and Conference Center.

The Paddle and Picnic After Hours event will return to Blairsville on June 11. This event will be sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy and the Friends of the Blairsville Communities.

“The day will begin in Blairsville; boaters will be shuttled to Robinson to float the 10 miles through Packsaddle Gap — one of the most beautiful sections of the Conemaugh River — back to Blairsville where participants will be treated to a Picnic After Hours from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. with food, fun and entertainment,” Gwinn said.

For more details, contact the chamber at (724) 465-2511.

Gwinn also stated that the summer concert series will again happen again this summer at the amphitheater by the Riverfront Trail and the Conemaugh River. Concerts will begin on June 11 and run through Aug. 27.

Chauncey Ross, public relations and communications specialist from White Township, informed the board that development is underway in many areas. Ross reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has ramped up the Oakland Avenue widening project between Rustic Lodge Road and Route 286. The former Ponderosa Restaurant building has been demolished, and a new Modwash car wash will be constructed on that site. Ross also reported that contractors have been busy remodeling the former Rent-A-Center site for a new medical marijuana dispensary, and the Vennard’s Crossroads convenience store site has seen activity with the replacement of fuel tanks and enlargement of the store. A new convenience store/gas station is expected to open soon. Ross also mentioned that White Township recently approved a revised site plan for development of Panera Bread and Applebee’s restaurants along Oakland Avenue across from Aldi.

The township report continued with news that the township municipal authority recently opened bids for the Route 286 East sanitary sewage system extension project. The township has borrowed $3 million for the project, and three of the six bids came in below $3.1 million. According to Ross, the bids are now under engineering review and a contractor may be selected by the authority next week.

Ross concluded his report by mentioning that the township this summer will conduct a swimming pool safety education campaign.

“Our mission of being the best place to live, work and play in our area does not come by accident; it requires work that we are prepared to do,” Ross said.

According to Ross, White Township is considering an ordinance that will govern safety features of private pools and require ongoing compliance with the standards. Property owners and developers, who traditionally have complied with swimming pool regulations on the day of installation and inspection, now will be asked to comply with ongoing upkeep of pool safety features.

“Our most meaningful effort as a township may be in encouraging families to educate their children about the water, to make sure they understand and respect water, and to keep watch over children when they are near swimming pools,” Ross said.

Upcoming chamber member events include:

• Chamber of Commerce Golf Outing at Links at Spring Church, 10 a.m.Thursday

• Business After Hours at First Commonwealth Bank, June 9

• Paddle and Picnic in Blairsville, June 11

• Indiana County Night at Altoona Curve, June 18

• Indiana County Business Hall of Fame at Indiana Country Club, June 23

The chamber will meet next on June 16 at the Hilton Garden Inn.

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