The board of commissioners is proud of efforts made to improve county infrastructure, technology and safety over the past year. But during the annual State of the County luncheon, they said work to improve the overall quality of life has just begun.
The event, hosted by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, was held at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, where more than 200 attendees heard Commissioners Michael Pipe, Steve Dershem and Mark Higgins reflect on the past year and share their hopes for the future of Centre County.
Since last year’s luncheon, Pipe said the county has seen “progress and momentum” on priority projects like increasing broadband access, enhancing the county’s voting system with new machines, raising the hotel tax in an effort to promote tourism and working to expand resources offered by the Office of Human Services.
Looking ahead, the commissioners said collaboration and teamwork are key to solving the county’s most pressing problems.
Centre County government has worked to update technology to improve communication, education and enhance internet accessibility for residents.
“In communities without broadband access, kids have less educational opportunities, businesses can’t grow, healthcare utilization is worse, and families find it more difficult to stay in touch,” Pipe said.
After winning a bid to use three of Centre County’s 911 communications towers to hang equipment that would provide wireless internet service to rural areas in the county, Centre WISP Venture LLC has installed broadband technology in Centre Hall. Last week, the board of commissioners voted to approve an addendum that allowed Centre WISP to install equipment that will enhance broadband in Penns Valley.
Anticipating that turnout for the upcoming presidential election will be the highest in county history, Pipe said the county’s new voting machines will make for a more efficient voting process. Centre County was one of nine counties in Pennsylvania that deployed the new machines for May elections.
Internally, Pipe said the county has taken steps to make its system more secure in the event of a cyberattack, adding that local governments are often the targets of phishing scams.
In terms of infrastructure and economy improvement efforts, Higgins said Centre County has worked to improve local bridge and roadway projects. With progress on the Bellefonte Interchange and the Potters Mills Gap Project, Higgins said access to Centre County will expand into other parts of the state — helping to attract visitors and potential businesses to the area.
Thanks to $11 million in investments for the University Park Airport, Higgins said the airport has plans to add two more cities in Florida to its flight options next month.
With the county’s energy efficiency upgrades, Higgins said the county facilities will reduce in their operating cost and increase comfort for citizens and employees.
Higgins also said he’s excited to see the county expand its health care resources with projects like Geisinger Health System’s plan to invest in Centre County medical facilities and the new cardiovascular pavilion at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
By using opportunity zone funding and assistance offered by business incubators, Higgins said local businesses and start-up companies are continuing to grow throughout the county.
“We continue to have roughly 150 new startups every single year — spread throughout the entire county,” Higgins said.
With addiction as a main concern, Dershem spoke to a different approach to treating addiction in Centre County. Citing the success of the adult drug court program and a decrease in overdose deaths, Dershem said the county will be adding an additional support system for those seeking help.
“When you see the pain and the hurt, (addition) causes so many families in the community, you will realize how important it is that we continue to monitor it and keep it under control,” Dershem said. “It’s a matter of reducing stigma. It’s a matter of finding treatment, and we’ve had great response ... from Mount Nittany Health.”
Dershem said the county received a $130,000 grant to create a board — made up of law enforcement and medical specialists — that will meet with individuals who are struggling with addiction and make sure they have a smooth road to recovery by providing support and treatment.
The commissioners said the county is likely to face challenges when working to accomplish its goals. But with the resources and systems already in place, Dershem said they will be able to catch and solve them ahead of time.
“The past, present and future successes of Centre County government are built upon collaboration, partnerships and teamwork,” Pipe said.