It’s a wonderful life in Indiana County

How officials in the birthplace of Jimmy Stewart are working together to ensure the health of the local economy.

The statue of hometown hero Jimmy Stewart greets visitors to the Indiana County Courthouse. (Courtesy photo)
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.

In a critical scene in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey, played by Indiana County native Jimmy Stewart, implores his fellow Bedford Falls residents to stick together during an economic crisis. Only by working as a team, he tells the nervous neighbors, can they collectively fend off the encroachment of dastardly developer Mr. Potter.

Some 70 years later, that same spirit of teamwork has helped Indiana County weather some economic downturns, as local officials banded together to market this county 60 miles east of Pittsburgh as a desirable place to live and work.

As the president of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, Jim Struzzi has no trouble giving a sales pitch for all the county has to offer. He just considers all the things that drew his own family here.

Attracting millennials to the area isn’t a tough sell, he adds. “We have tremendous quality of life, great schools, we aren’t that far from Pittsburgh and you have access to cultural events and great outdoor activities,” he said.

Struzzi came to Indiana County in 1999 when he was working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. He and his family moved here a few years later because they found even though they lived in Allegheny County, they were visiting Indiana — where his wife grew up — on a regular basis.

“When the chamber president retired, it seemed like a perfect opportunity,” Struzzi said. “We knew Indiana County was a great place to raise a family.”

Like much of southwestern Pennsylvania, Indiana County’s economy saw a boom in recent years thanks to the Marcellus Shale. When natural gas prices started to plummet, however, development officials realized they needed to focus on other sectors of the local economy.

Struzzi says Indiana County is unique in its approach.

“We’ve had some other counties visit us to study how we work together. We structure our economic development differently,” he said.

The chamber, the county commissioners, the Indiana County Development Corp., the Indiana County Tourist Bureau and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) are all part of a joint initiative called the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations.

“We all make sure we’re communicating and moving in the same direction with what we’re doing to market the county,” Struzzi said. “We want to be sure we’re all speaking with one voice when asking the state for assistance. When we have a business inquiry, we all meet with them together.”

We've had some other counties visit us to study how we work together. We structure our economic development differently.

Indiana CEO, as the organization is called, has been around since the mid-1990s, created after the downturn of the coal industry, which was one of the county’s biggest employers. “The local leaders decided they needed to do something to pool their resources and get everyone together to transition from a coal-based economy to something new,” Struzzi explained.

Two big parts of that transition in recent years have included the widening of Route 119, the road to Pittsburgh, and the expansion of Jimmy Stewart Airport.

And Struzzi says visitors are surprised to discover how many local financial institutions have their headquarters in Indiana County, including First Commonwealth Bank, S&T Bank and Marion Center Bank.

IUP is also a huge part of the regional identity, as an employer and as a cultural hub. Its 14,000 students drive millions of dollars into the local economy every year, its theater department brings Broadway shows to campus, and IUP has nearly two dozen different sports teams.

But when school is out, local businesses can struggle without their student customers. “It’s definitely a different county when IUP is not in session,” Struzzi said. “You take 14,000 students out of the mix, and it’s just not as busy.”

Indiana County also boasts an independent hospital system, Indiana Regional Medical Center, and is home to Diamond Pharmacy Services and Medical Supply Co., another major employer.

The Indiana CEO touts the 200-acre Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park and its other business parks as ideal locations for larger businesses. Indiana County has retail, but would like to add more, Struzzi says. “We want to focus on good, family-sustaining jobs,” he said.

He pointed to Gordon Sinclair, a promotional products manufacturer as a recent win for the county. The company announced earlier this year it was investing $5 million into a 60,000-square-foot plant in White Township.

Pennsylvania was competing with locations in New York and Florida, but Struzzi said state assistance including a $200,000 Pennsylvania First Program grant and, $200,000 in job-creation tax credits let Gordon Sinclair know it was more than welcome in Indiana County.

“You’ll get support here,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to help you be a success here.”

Series: Grow PA

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