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Improving broadband a priority

Task force formed to support goal

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / A cellular tower located on the east end of Patton Borough is shown. According to a recently completed development strategy, improving broadband service in the six-county region will be a top priority over the next five years.

Improving broadband service in the six-county region will be one of the top priorities over the next five years, according to the recently completed Southern Alleghenies Region Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for 2020-24.

The CEDS for the six-county Southern Alleghenies Region — which includes Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties — is designed to coordinate public sector and private sector planning and investments into a self-planned “roadmap” to guide initiatives for diversifying and strengthening a regional economy.

As an economic development district federally designated by the Economic Development Administration, the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission is required to support an active CEDS process.

While the CEDS’ most critical function is to provide a framework or “roadmap” for guiding investments within the region, it also serves as a required vehicle through which the EDA evaluates grant requests. Without an EDA approved CEDS, applicants in the region are ineligible to receive grant assistance through the EDA.

The CEDS is completed every five years, said Brandon Carson, SAP&DC director of planning and community development.

“The level of broadband connectivity rose as a high-level priority. We set a standalone goal for broadband development. We formed a broadband task force to support that goal. We are moving forward with the broadband study. It includes eight counties, Southern Alleghenies region, plus Westmoreland and Fayette,” Carson said.

The study should be completed by the end of June.

“Broadband is a very big issue, not only in Huntingdon County, but also the region. We must improve this to retain and attract business to the region. This is as important as highways in today’s world,” said Huntingdon County Commissioner Jeff Thomas, task force chairman. “We have hired a consultant for the region to help identify the unserved and underserved. We have also identified a pilot project in Fulton County. Also, a group from Mill Creek has just went live with a service in that area to serve those residents. If the major carriers will not supply service to these areas, we will find a model and way to do so.”

Others agree the broadband issue is very important.

“Lack of broadband access is a bigger problem in most other regional counties than it is in Blair. However, for those living in rural areas in the fringes of Blair County’s geography, it is a critical issue. Lack of or poor broadband service negatively impacts business development, educational opportunities, delivery of medical care and public safety as well as other things. The expense to fix this is great, but the costs of failing to do so are greater,” said Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb, president of the SAP&DC board of directors.

“Broadband is critical at all levels. Here, in Blair, we are fairly well-served in the middle part of the county, but less so as you move east and west, into our neighborhood areas. Our topography is also challenging and with more people working from their homes and remotely, they need the best connectivity to reach global markets quickly and reliably,” said Pres­ident/CEO Stephen McKnight of Altoona Blair County Development Corp.

The CEDS includes four other goals which are not ranked in any particular order.

They include: seeking expansion of the regional economy through diversified job growth; maintaining and modernizing infrastructure to make the region more competitive for economic development; adapting communities to be more attractive as places to live and work; and investing in all areas that influence health and well-being while raising awareness of health opportunities for all residents.

The implementation or action plan identifies the goals, objectives, performance measures and implementation partners necessary for guiding economic development initiatives for the next five years.

The purpose of the action plan is to develop a “roadmap” for targeting future economic development initiatives throughout the region, thereby launching the CEDs into action.

“The goals and objectives are the meat and potatoes of it,” Carson said.

Southern Alleghenies coordinates putting together the CEDS.

“We engage a variety of stakeholders like Steve McKnight and his folks at ABCD Corp. They are involved, as well as their counterparts from the five other counties. There is a representation of stakeholders in the private sector. We are the champion. We help coordinate this through the CEDS committee. At the core, there were about 15 people with representation from all six counties,” Carson said.

Carson said it took about six months to complete the report.

“A lot of the information can be updated cycle to cycle. The last update was five years ago — a lot of the elements are still important, we need to refresh the data,” Carson said.

The original draft included only four goals but the committee added a fifth goal — the one dealing with health — suggested by the Blair County Planning Commission.

“We recognize this is not a usual topic for an economic development plan and that Blair County has had people and programs in place for years to address these issues. Because of this, we recognize their impact on the economy and society and have experience in addressing them. We appreciate Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission including this with the knowledge that they can look to these people in Blair County for support in implementing this goal and its objectives,” said Blair County Planning Director David McFarland.

McKnight said the study affirms that while there are many issues that cross-cut all six counties, like the need for improved broadband and limited new housing options, each of the counties also have very different experiences relative to economic diversification and capacity to grow.

“In Blair, our economic base is much more diversified than it was two decades ago. We are also seeing a rise in independent or remote professionals working from either their homes or smaller offices. This is a national trend, especially among younger professionals who demand flexible work schedules and work spaces. Between startups, independent workers and existing businesses expanding, Blair realized a 1.6 percent increase in overall employment last year,” McKnight said.

Erb said one of the most interesting aspects is that three of the five goals deal with quality of life issues.

“In order for us to experience higher levels of economic development, the goals include adapting communities to be more attractive as places to live and work, upgrading and expanding telecommunications service in the region, and investing in areas that influence health and well-being while raising awareness of health opportunities for all residents,” Erb said.

The CEDS study is reflective of communities across the country and the need to challenge traditional views of economic development overall, McKnight said.

“There is a tendency to think of jobs and corporations as faceless data points. Assumptions are made that if you simply offer low costs you can somehow convince industries to build factories and then lots of ‘jobs’ will follow. But today it’s much more than that,” McKnight said. “We need to keep in mind that it’s people that start the businesses, make investment decisions and move to communities for many reasons. They value communities as a whole, its schools, art scene, recreation, housing stock. We are all in the people-attraction business and while it may be more difficult to do in slow growth markets, we need to continually invest in all of the things the CEDS points out to ensure our communities are competitive for people to live and invest.”

The study concludes that location and transportation infrastructure are two strengths of the region and the growth of transportation and warehousing is logical.

“We are a mountain town region with abundant outdoor activities for every season. Good infrastructure makes it easy for residents to enjoy our regional asset base, from ski resorts, to lakes, to trails. Locations like ours appeal to a large percentage of people who want to be in a community like ours, and that is a big advantage that we are all working hard to promote,” McKnight said.

There are challenges to getting the plan implemented.

“The biggest challenge is the lack of resources. Funding is always a large hurdle. There are a lot of needs out there, that is why we try to maximize the resources we have available — people and funding,” Carson said. “There are a lot of great partnerships in the region. I am impressed by how well we collaborate in the region, it is important with limited resources, we need to partner and work together to solve the problems.”

There is no specific deadline by which to get the plan implemented.

“Attainment is a moving target date. We have different tasks, there is no deadline or ramification if certain deadlines are not completed. It helps us focus on the proper projects and initiatives,” Carson said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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