COVID-19, unfortunately, is still in business and affects businesses globally and locally. The impact of the pandemic is not as profound now, but it remains part of a mix of factors that have cast a financial pall over the United States and other nations. This collection of puzzles leads Observer-Reporter annual list of the top 10 business stories.
1. Money matters
Consumers have had to contend with rising inflation, supply chain issues, high commodity prices, diminished home buying options, Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and the ongoing Great Recession. The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates in an effort to stave off a recession and may continue to raise them in 2023.
However, there have been some positive financial signs recently. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that inflation is cooling; consumer spending rose modestly in November; and supply chains were operating normally. Employment and wages have increased.
Food and restaurant prices are still high and many businesses are continuing to post “help wanted” signs, but after hitting historic highs, gasoline prices have fallen to an 18-month low nationwide.
2. The Mon Valley Alliance continues its progressive ways
It was a big year for the Mon Valley Alliance.
A new CEO was appointed, after Jamie Colecchi was appointed to lead the agency in April. Colecchi replaces Ben Brown, who stepped down as CEO to be the new director of customer experience and innovation for Community Bank.
At that time, Mary Stollar was named the organization’s new director of real estate and economic development.
Also, Colecchi and his three employees moved into the former Community Bank branch building in Monongahela’s downtown business district in September.
MVA launched its Economic Book in April. The playbook is a coordinated and collaborative marketing and promotion strategy to advance economic development and ongoing investment in municipalities.
MVA also received a $2 million state grant to continue construction of the Donora Industrial Park with the expansion of Barchemy, a chocolate and confectionery manufacturer.
The organization also announced the first Neighborhood Partnership Program to be established in the Mid Valley on Monday. This NPP is a six-year plan designed to bring $1.5 million to Charleroi for community improvement projects and social services.
3. Washington’s health care system continues
It began as a small hospital in 1897, eventually merged with another health care facility in town, and later began to thrive in a spacious new home built on farmland donated by a local family.
A full 125 years after its beginning, Washington Hospital continues to grow. It has expanded into the Washington Health System, with over 20 locations and approximately 2,000 full- and part-time employees, 300 medical staff and 300 volunteers. It is the largest employer in Washington County and among the top employers in Greene, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries.
Being an independent health system is fraught with challenges, yet WHS has dealt with two global pandemics, two world wars, polio, recessions, staggering inflation and other contemporary issues.
“My lesson from our ancestors,” said president/CEO Brook Ward, “is that they had less technology, less science and less knowledge than we do today, and they made it through that time. If they can make it, we can make it too.”
4. Coming, going eating
One of downtown Washington’s most popular restaurants closed in late August when husband and wife Michael and Georgetta Williamson retired and closed Solomon’s Seafood and Grille after a 33-year run. “It’s sad, but it’s time,” Michael said after the closing.
The owners, classmates at Washington High School in the early 70s, strive to provide a high-end dining experience with a varied menu, efficient service and miles of smiles for customers. They started with a small shop on Henderson Avenue in 1989 selling fresh fish and filling takeout orders, then four years later moved to a larger location that Michael built on Hall Avenue.
After a successful stint in Washington, the owners of Chicco Baccello decided to open a second cafe-bakery-deli in downtown Canonsburg. Chicco launched last winter in a street-level location along West Pike.
Two other Washington hotspots that, combined, have operated for more than 130 years, are still in operation. Shorty’s Lunch has been serving up its signature hot dogs along West Chestnut Street for nearly 90 years, while Joe Vucic Jr. goes into his 42nd year making cakes at Joe’s Bakery.
5. The Business Incubator marks its first anniversary
Ignite Business Incubator celebrated its first anniversary at its location at 57 Chestnut St., Washington, on June 1.
During that first year, Ignite provided more than 700 hours of consultative support.
Another service offered by Ignite is the Ideas 2 Enterprise (I2E) business planning workshop groups, which offer courses for local entrepreneurs to help create a formal business plan. The next batch is scheduled for February.
Through these services, some businesses have been able to expand, while others that may have had a mobile operation have been able to open a brick and mortar facility.
“Seeing businesses succeed and expand their business model or open a brick and mortar reaffirms that something special is happening here in Washington County,” said Lauren LaGreca, Ignite manager. “Intentional actions create sustainable paths forward. We’re continuing to grow and do well, and that’s just a testament to what we have here in Washington with these entrepreneurs and these small business owners.”
Ignite evolved from the Greater Washington Area Business Incubator. It connects, supports, educates and empowers entrepreneurs and small businesses by providing services such as consulting, mentoring or networking.
6. Economic development is restored
Economic development is on the rise in the 10-county region.
That was a key takeaway from the 15th annual Pittsburgh Region Business Scorecard, released in June by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its affiliate, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
This scorecard detailed the business investment activity that was announced in 2021 – including capital investment and new and retained jobs,
Washington, Greene and Fayette counties all reported good numbers on the scoreboard.
Washington County listed 18 investment projects, including Innovative Electronics developing a 50,000-square-foot building at Starpointe Business Park in Burgettstown. The district scorecard also listed 10 development projects.
Greene County listed three investment projects and one development project. Fayette County listed two development projects.
“Washington always tends to be among the most active counties,” said Jim Futrell, vice president of market research for the Allegheny Conference. “Greene tends to be a little quieter, although announcements there doubled from two to four, and Fayette remains steady at two. It’s a nice return within these three counties.”
7. Broadband expansion continues
Expanding broadband to underserved and underserved areas remains a top priority.
Washington County launched its broadband initiative in January with a pilot program near Avella partnering with Hickory Telephone to provide high-speed Internet to Meadowcroft and 50 homes in Jefferson Township.
Many other projects were approved using federal American Rescue Plan Act money with telecommunications companies sharing the costs. County officials also announced a multiyear deal in October to bring broadband to 6,500 customers in 10 pockets across Washington County at an estimated cost of $50 million.
Greene County officials announced in December that they had received a $1 million donation from the CNX Foundation that will be used to partner with Kinetic by Windstream to install fiber cable in the northwest section of the county. This project coincides with other phases that include installing broadband in the southwest corner of Greene County and improving services to population centers around Waynesburg, Carmichaels and Mount Morris.
Fayette County received $1.1 million in state grants to be used to expand broadband services to some underserved areas of the county. This helps the county build on $5.3 million spent on its VITALink initiative to install 29 internet “hot spots” across the county using federal CARES Act stimulus money in late 2020.
Broadband is also gaining widespread support among supporters of the McGuffey Area Revitalization Initiative, which focuses on economic development and revitalization along the Interstate 70-Route 40 corridor that stretches from Washington to the West Virginia strip.
8. Operation of the cracker plant
Six years after Royal Dutch Shell announced it would indeed build an ethylene reactor plant in Beaver County, the petrochemical complex officially began commercial operations in November.
The $6 billion project, in Potter Township along the Ohio River, is going full blast — and running into trouble. Shell exceeded air permit limits two months in a row this fall during startup activities and received a violation notice from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Plastic production is expected to be a major outcome of the operation. A cracker “breaks” ethane molecules into petrochemical building blocks that can be refined to create polyethylene, a plastic used for a variety of purposes, from food packaging to automobile parts.
Pennsylvania offered a $1.6 billion tax incentive for Shell to build the complex in Beaver County in exchange for 600 ongoing jobs.
9. Claysville Area Project
An ambitious development/economic revitalization project along the Interstate 70-Route 40 corridor, stretching from Washington to the West Virginia beltway, has a long way to go. But it is making progress.
The revitalization of Main Street (Route 40) is a major objective of the Claysville Area Preservation and Revitalization Initiative (CAPRI). While the borough’s retail strip is quite vibrant, improvements are needed in the only business district located within the sprawling McGuffey School District.
Local officials have received $116,250 in state tax credits to go toward the purchase and possible rehabilitation of the Sprowls Hardware complex at 234-238 Main St., a blighted building complex that has been vacant since 2013. Local businessman Rick Newton of calls it “An iconic building at the center of the community.”
10. Roller skating returns to Donora with Roll ‘R’ Way
The Roll ‘R’ Way skating center opened on Nov. 4 and was met with long lines of people waiting to get in each of the first two nights. Steady crowds continue to come to the rink at 590 Galiffa Drive.
“It’s been good,” said Frank Quintin, owner of Roll ‘R’ Way. “Things are moving.”
Quintin purchased the former Valley Skating Center, which was built in 1983 by the Shoup family and remained open until August of this year. Linda Shoup Miner, the facility’s owner, said none of her descendants were interested in running the business, so it was sold.
While the skating center’s early days have featured mostly skating and an arcade, there are big plans. Pickleball is expected to start early in the new year and two concerts are already planned.