Blair County is embracing its roots.
The county, which has largely come to be known as the home of Sheetz headquarters and Penn State Altoona, is trying out a fresh take on its history as a frontier town where nature-loving millennials can settle down, start businesses and enjoy a peaceful mountain lifestyle.
And it seems to be working.
“We are seeing this bump up in demographics relative to the 20-30 age group,” said Steve McKnight, president and CEO of Altoona Blair County Development Corporation (ABCDC). “They all tend to be concentrated in the urban center, which is great. We think the arrow is pointing up.”
McKnight is a Blair County native who returned to the area and ABCDC in April of 2016 after 10 years working as an economic development consultant at Fourth Economy, the Pittsburgh-based firm he founded alongside fellow economic development wonk Rich Overmeyer.
McKnight’s first move was to begin rebranding the county. His inspiration? Levi’s 2010 Braddock-based ad campaign.
“It truly was one of the best commercials I’ve ever seen,” McKnight said.
Soon after McKnight came onboard, ABCDC launched its new “First Frontier” brand, complete with a flashy, user-friendly website and the video below, released this past February.
“Blair didn’t have a real distinguishing location. It was important for us to ground it in fact and history,” said McKnight. The result, he said, is “exactly the kind of thing we want to push out there to speak to the next generation investor.”
While Sheetz remains Blair’s largest private employer, McKnight noted that there is a small tech and innovation center, mostly comprised of small startups and growing companies working in and around the health system. That includes software development firm Delta Health Technologies and care provider Empower3 Center for Health.
With I-99 acting as a talent conduit of sorts from State College, the sector is only growing. McKnight said the county will pick up 10-12 companies spinning out of Penn State per year.
McKnight said much of the success can be attributed to knowing the county’s strengths and weaknesses.
“You can’t try to attract a big-city person here who doesn’t like winter that lasts nine months,” he said. “We want to make sure they know what they’re getting themselves into when they get here.”