Feb. 28—Officials with the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County say the region is on track for growth in the coming year, with the expansion of high-speed internet access a top priority.
Connection President and CEO Jim Smith, addressing the economic development group's annual meeting last week via Zoom, said events such as the online gathering coupled with the growing demands of workers left to work from home during the pandemic, have only served to underscore the importance of broadband access.
"We're facing widespread problems across the county. ... At some spots, access isn't much better than dial up," Smith said.
State Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, told the group help may be on the way in the Biden administration stimulus bill now working its way through Congress.
Help can't come too soon, Smith said.
He said officials with the Ligonier Valley School District reported that some students have had to sit in parking lots to access wi-fi for schoolwork.
In other areas, service is robust. Smith said one of the biggest problems has been learning just where weak spots exist in a market place where providers consider their service maps confidential information and are reluctant to share, Smith said.
Officials knew there were weak spots in the far eastern reaches of the county. But Smith said as demand has grown with an increase in at-home work and school demands during the pandemic, weak spots have surfaced in many communities, even as business and industry place an added priority on high-speed internet as critical infrastructure for growth.
Indeed, it will be integral to the Connection's biggest ever project, the $5 million Digital Foundry in New Kensington. The new facility, scheduled for construction over the next year, is a joint project of the Richard K. Mellon Foundation, which provided a $5.5 million grant to underwrite construction, the Economic Growth Connection, the New Kensington Redevelopment Authority and Penn State New Kensington. Officials have touted it has a project that will allow business and industry to create digital twins of their products and connect the emerging workforce with the economy of the future.
"High-speed internet is no longer a luxury," Ward said, equating it to critical infrastructure services such as water and sewer service.
Smith said it may be even more important.
Ward said the good news is that it appears stimulus package will include money for capital projects such as broadband expansion.
"That will help elevate this issue," Ward said, vowing to use her position in the GOP leadership to push local priorities such as broadband.
The prospect for such projects follows a year in which local economic growth slowed, with the Economic Growth Connection reporting that investments in projects it helped shepherd declined from $39.2 million in 2019 to $11.3 million last year. Smith said the good news is that companies that shelved investment plans last year or put expansion plans on hold are beginning to move forward this year.
"There were projects in mid year that were canceled because contractors couldn't get out," he said.
And even during the shutdown, Smith said the organizations was about to help local businesses secure $25 to $30 million in assistance both through traditional and nontraditional avenues which opened up to help keep businesses operating through the pandemic.
"We are proud of our role, working to help keep the lights on," Smith said.
The organization has partnered with state and local officials in that effort, including the Westmoreland County commissioners.
Commissioners' Chair Sean Kertes said such work will continue in coming weeks at the county level, as commissioners build a platform for the distribution of $3.9 million in state assistance to local businesses in the hospitality industry.
Kertes said the grants that will be capped at $20,000 will be awarded on a first come-first served basis with an emphasis put on assisting businesses that have received no prior assistance or had such funding forgiven. He said more there are more than 1,200 businesses countywide in the hospitality sector, which includes food and beverage purveyors and those who provide overnight accommodations.
He said the program will be handled strictly online through a secure county website, with no paper applications. Additional information will be posted on the county website as information becomes available.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, email@example.com or via Twitter .