Digital access / Economics / Health

‘Not your father’s’ factory: How one Pa. county is courting growth

In Armstrong County, retention is the name of the game.

Ford City in Armstrong County. (Photo by Flickr user Joanna Poe, used under a Creative Commons license)
This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.
Economic prosperity is a fight for balance. It begins with understanding where strengths lie now and ends with foreseeing where they must lie in the future. But first, the workers who drive those industries need to stick around.

Armstrong County, just northeast of Pittsburgh, is making sure its bases are covered by spreading investment across healthcare, post-secondary education and infrastructure while focusing on keeping young workers in town.

“There’s not a huge focus initiative on one segment,” said Armstrong County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Mike Coonley, adding that not putting all of the county’s eggs in one basket makes for a healthier community.

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There is a heavy focus, however, on retention. Coonley said his department works closely with existing businesses, spending about 70 percent of its time on business retention.

“These are companies that have invested in Armstrong County and employ existing people. We want to make sure they can continue and grow in place,” he said.

Infrastructure in particular has seen some significant investment recently, which Coonley attributes to reinvestment in older towns being more attractive to the citizenry.

From Route 28 to the US 422 corridor, older communities are undergoing revitalization efforts. Coonley said some municipalities such as Kittanning are actively pursuing or engaging in downtown restoration initiatives.

Coonley and his staff are not trying to make Armstrong County something that it’s not. Instead, their efforts are to attract or bring back those who leave after graduation.

“It’s very difficult [to retain people] right out of college with the exciting draw to more urban, vibrant communities, but as people settle down, they question themselves,” said Coonley.

Healthcare is also a booming sector, with an aging population higher than the state’s average, and a number of companies have been established to care specifically for an aging population.

“Our largest demographic is age 55–64,” said Coonley. “Age 45–64 is 30 percent of the population. That’s significant.”

Armstrong’s largest employer is Armstrong County Memorial Hospital (ACMH), an independent hospital competing with other large regional health networks like UPMC, Allegheny Health Network and Geisinger.

ACMH, Coonley said, capitalizes on the pool of physicians produced by universities in nearby Pittsburgh. Armstrong County doesn’t boast big name universities, but that doesn’t mean it’s void post-secondary opportunity.

Lenape Technical School, for example, offers high school students the opportunity to earn college credit through a partnership with Butler Community College, which just moved back to the county three years ago.

“Between adult education, the secondary program and Butler, students have options to leave high school with skills at the secondary level, to begin working [while] doing part-time continuing education and then transferring to a four-year [university], enrolling in adult education, or jumping to a four-year university,” said Karen Brock, Lenape Technical School’s Administrative Director.

Brock said many students in the region are first-generation college students, and Lenape is working to change the narrative by producing more skilled workers — specifically for the county’s growing manufacturing industry.

“People have to understand there’s a need for skills out there,” said Brock. “It’s not your father or grandfather’s workplace anymore.”

There are about 120 manufacturers in Armstrong, according to Coonley, doing work for familiar names like Tesla and NASA.

“They quietly go under the radar,” he said. “They aren’t the big 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 [employee] facilities any longer. The emphasis has been placed on smaller manufacturers.”

Series: Grow PA

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