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ABCD sees positives despite virus

Reopening of Slinky factory a bright spot during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on almost every business and organization in the area — it even led Altoona Blair County Development Corp. to cancel its annual meeting for the first time in its history — a time set aside to reflect and celebrate the previous year’s accomplishments.

The year 2019, which now seems so long ago — was a good year, according to ABCD Corp. President/CEO Steve McKnight.

“Looking back on 2019 in the midst of this storm seems almost irrelevant. But 2019 was not irrelevant. It was big,” McKnight said.

“Blair County experienced steady growth in most key indicators — continuing a positive five-year trend. The unemployment rate hovered around 4 percent. Employers were aggressively recruiting new talent from outside of the regional market area. And businesses were expanding. ABCD facilitated 20 business expansion projects resulting in more than $26 million in new capital expenditures. Those projects produced 96 news jobs and retained 268,” McKnight said.

He said 2020 will not be good by most economic measures — but there are good things happening.

“The acquisition of the Slinky Toy Factory by Just Play Inc. has reopened operations in Hollidaysburg, putting the former production team back to work. Small tech start-ups like WorkTok are finding opportunity in this current market,” McKnight said. “Several other expansion announcements are expected this fall. Most of the other projects that were slated for 2020 have simply been delayed until 2021.”

The pandemic has not been all bad for the area.

“As emotionally taxing as the pandemic has been, it would be shortsighted to say that nothing positive has come from the overall experience. Many businesses have found sources of flexibility and even creativity in how they’ve handled some of the more challenging aspects of COVID-19,” said Joe Hurd, president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.

“The financial piece aside, employers have been able to streamline operations to gain efficiency in areas that would likely have remained dormant otherwise,” Hurd said. “The saying, ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ was played out and continues to be played out as businesses recognize the need to remain vigilant.

“I’m confident, from what I’ve seen and heard from a number of businesses, that a large number of changes that will take place as the result of COVID-19 will be less out of necessity and more out of design.”

“The pandemic appears to be reviving interest in rural mountain towns like ours, something we are planning to make the best of as we move through the remainder of this year and next,” McKnight said. “Together, these trends suggest a rebound and rebirth that may be bigger than we expect.”

But McKnight said pandemics and economics don’t mix.

“Blair County is a pretty social place. We like our street festivals, concerts, sports, craft food and beer halls. Take them away and ouch, it hurts. Balancing life and livelihood during COVID has been tough. You simply cannot operate a successful business or event by limiting capacity, separating people and increasing costs all to ensure everyone is completely safe from something you cannot see. Yet, we are trying to thread that needle,” McKnight said.

He said a return to “normalville” is dependent on when a vaccine of some type is made available.

“Until there is a vaccine or commonly accepted treatment, we are required to wear masks and keep our distance. That response is framed as a social contract,” McKnight said. “When a vaccine becomes available, we then have a choice to receive it — the masks can come off.

“Last year, as an example, there were between 39 million and 56 million cases of the flu. But we have a vaccine. While efficacy is important, the simple availability of a treatment upholds the social contract,” McKnight said.

He said the present situation is temporary.

“Do not call it a new normal. Do not equate masks with shirts and shoes. Do not suggest that small business owners might be responsible for invisible contagion transfer among customers. A few months of a pandemic does not an ‘era’ make. Stop using that term,” McKnight said.

“If we need greater compliance to further control the spread, try reminding everyone that we will not always wear masks. We will not stand 6 feet apart indefinitely. Schools will not be shrouded in bubble wrap,” McKnight said. “There will be an end. Some might think that goes without saying — but saying it cannot hurt and might even help.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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