Positioning Centre County for a bright economic future

At first glance, it is hard to think of Centre County’s economy as having any challenges. The presence of Penn State brings a stable supply of good jobs, and offers a level of protection from economic fluctuations and downturns. The leisure/hospitality/retail industry is strong. Historically, the overall unemployment rate is low.

On the other hand, Centre County’s economy is also heavily tilted toward the quasi government and government sectors, making it increasingly susceptible to state budget woes. The well-documented loss of much of the county’s traditional manufacturing base has been replaced by somewhat lower paying jobs.

These bright spots and weaknesses were outlined in a 2017 Moody’s Analytics economic assessment of the State College Metro Statistical Area. With specific regard to barriers to growth, the report had this to say:

“Despite being home to one of the nation’s largest research universities, (the State College MSA) will struggle to retain college graduates. Low business costs and an above average concentration of high-tech jobs bode well, but the metro area’s rural location makes it challenging to develop and retain value-added industries. Meanwhile, low-paying industries supporting PSU will account for the majority of job gains, weighing on income growth. Lower pay and few job opportunities outside the university will continue to push PSU graduates to larger, more diverse metro areas.”

To position Centre County for a bright economic future, these barriers must be addressed. How? By remaining committed to strengthening the private sector economy through entrepreneurial development; business retention; and proactive business recruitment.

With now nearly a dozen incubators, co-working spaces and collaboration hubs, Centre County is becoming increasingly more attractive to those wanting to start a business, particularly in the technology sector. (Moody’s points this out as an “upside” for the future.) With energy from Invent Penn State and a supportive community network, our robust entrepreneurial ecosystem is garnering attention nationwide. In 2016, the State College MSA was ranked No. 10 in the “Best U.S. Cities for Entrepreneurs to Live and Launch” by “Entrepreneur Magazine.”

Established companies, particularly those in the high-tech manufacturing field, are growing and adding jobs.

For example, in the past six months, Homeland Manufacturing Services, Inc. has added five new employees and plans to add between 10 and 20 more this year. Several new contracts are requiring the company to move into a much larger College Township facility. The company predicts explosive growth in 2019.

Over the past year, State College-based KCF Technologies, Inc. has more than doubled its staff, which now includes approximately 70 full-time, full-benefits employees. Within the next year, the company plans to again double its staff. The company remains headquartered in and committed to the State College area while opening satellite offices throughout North America.

These are just two examples.

Job creation and wage growth will also benefit from new private-sector investment into the county.

The Penn State/CBICC economic development partnership has already resulted in the decision by U.K.-based Morgan Advanced Materials and Pittsburgh-based RJ Lee Group Inc. to have a presence in the county. Interestingly, other university communities are emulating this university/community partnership, meaning Centre County is being held as a model nationwide for how collaboration can drive economic growth.

Most recently, Nestlé Waters announced it is eyeing Spring and Benner township locations for the possible construction of a $50 million LEED certified bottling facility, and with it nearly 300 total pre-construction, direct and support jobs.

Of course, positioning Centre County for a healthy economic future also requires taking steps to ensure that current bright spots don’t become challenges or barriers in their own right.

In the entrepreneurship realm, business needs must be appropriately met along all stages of the economic continuum. As entrepreneurs move from co-working spaces and incubators, the question quickly becomes, “What next?” Tremendous effort has and is being made to encourage would-be entrepreneurs to start their businesses here; similar emphasis and energy must be placed on keeping those businesses as part of the fabric of the local economy.

For established companies, efforts need to focus on ensuring that they have what they need to grow: access to capital; a readily available skilled labor force; facility space to accommodate expansion; and a timely, fair regulatory structure in which to operate, along with creating an attractive “community ecosystem” in order to attract and keep talent.

Lesley Kistner is vice president of communications and marketing for the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County.