Area business leaders’ goal for 2021 is economic recovery
By Walt Frank
Economic development in the region was another victim of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Starting in March, the staff and board members of the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. could only react to the crisis, managing emergency grant programs, forgiving loans, deferring rents and referring unemployment claims, said President and CEO Stephen McKnight.
Nevertheless, in 2020, ABCD Corp. facilitated 52 business financing projects that represented nearly $17 million in total capital investment and nearly $6.3 million in program funding. These projects led to the creation of 25 new jobs and retention of 210, McKnight said.
“Several major local manufacturing expansions were in the works for 2020 have been deferred to 2021. We hope to announce at least three of those expansions in 2021,” McKnight said.
Meanwhile, renovations continue to turn the former Puritan Silk Mill into offices, apartments and eateries, and the former Vipond building downtown into administrative offices for Curry LLC’s numerous businesses.
“The Mill Building is moving ahead aggressively, trying to make up lost time due to the shutdown in 2020. We expect to see the building welcoming new tenants at some point in the later half of 2021,” McKnight said. “The former Vipond building project, which is being led by Curry Realty, is a critical anchor building project for 11th Avenue. It will put even more feet on the street adding to the vibrancy for our breweries and restaurants.”
Business as usual
The most important goal for 2021 is exiting from the declared state of emergency and resuming life and business as normal, McKnight said.
“This remains the best economic recovery strategy we should expect and demand. The public availability of several vaccines was the promised milestone to resume normal operations, so we should hold those who have the power over that decision to it, McKnight said. “We have to lift the state of emergency. We are quickly losing our ability to offset the damage that is being done.
“We will likely need to temper our enthusiasm for major economic recovery in the first half of 2021. Optimism is very high for the later half, possibly presenting unprecedented growth levels given the amount of buying and investment power deferred due to the pandemic.”
Government bailouts helped local businesses.
“For better or worse, without trillions of dollars spent on government programs such as the payroll protection program, our economic condition would likely be much more dire,” McKnight said.
Fortunately, the area has stable core industries, he said.
“Despite the challenges they faced, our manufacturing, construction, health care, financial and technology sectors have either maintained or managed to expand throughout 2020. Much of that growth resulted from a strong existing sales pipeline which benefited businesses through the first three quarters of the year. Softening sales in the fourth quarter and supply chain challenges pose an emerging threat if the crisis continues much further into 2021,” McKnight said.
New housing development will remain a priority through 2021 and beyond and new investment in our central business districts across the county also remains a focus.
“We need to get our main streets back into full operation and fill empty storefronts and vacant buildings. That was a focus before the pandemic and is even more important now,” McKnight said.
COVID-19 had a devastating impact on the local economy in Bedford County.
“Bedford County has a strong foundation in the hospitality and food service industries. These businesses were devastated due to restrictions directly targeting their industries; restaurants and retail stores were severely impacted,” said Bette Slayton, president of the Bedford County Development Association.
“The Omni Bedford Springs Resort, a huge draw of visitors, experienced a 35% drop in occupancy, and when visitors did come, spending was down considerably due to restrictions,” Slayton said.
“Dairy farmers were severely harmed by school and restaurant closings, which reduced demand for milk,” she said. “Manufacturers had supply chain issues with difficulty accessing parts and raw materials. And, certainly the health care industry, especially our hospital, was challenged as never before with overwhelming demand for services.”
The Bedford County Development Association supported a broad range of businesses in 2020, ranging from hair salons and day care centers to major manufacturers.
“We helped farmers, sole proprietors, service, retail and manufacturing businesses access a broad range of public programs,” Slayton said. “New COVID-related programs included the state’s COVID Working Capital Access Program, the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Payroll Protection Programs. It was critical to be available to help explain the programs to businesses and help with applications.”
The Bedford County commissioners opened CARES Act funding for small businesses and distributed more than $1 million. Bedford County’s Start Up Alleghenies business coach remained active throughout 2020 as Andrew Trexler secured $27,000 in grants for entrepreneurs, hosted a 10-week online Techcelerator Boot Camp for small businesses and coached more than 30 businesses.
Despite COVID-19, two major business expansions were announced and two new businesses opened, which reflected nearly $55 million in investment.
Green Leaf Medical LLC released plans for a $32 million expansion at its facility in Saxton, which will create 400-500 new jobs. CaptiveAire announced a $10 million expansion with the construction of a new 100,000-square foot manufacturing facility in Bedford County Business Park I, Slayton said.
The Organic Snack Co., which makes Kate’s Real Food protein bars, opened its new 20,000-square-foot production facility in our Business Park during the summer of 2020. In September, River Mountain opened its new $3.2 million retreat providing popular glamping and remote work opportunities.
Bedford County businesses were approved for $950,000 in loans through the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, Slayton said.
Three development projects are in the works for 2021, two of which are private sector and one potential multi-tenant building to be built by the Bedford County Development Association, which is working with the Governor’s Action Team to aggressively market Lot 4.
“Our primary goal is to market the 80-acre lot, which is located adjacent to REI along the I-99 Corridor,” Slayton said. “It is a pad-ready site that is designated as a Keystone Opportunity Zone and has permitting in place. With the increase in online shopping, we believe that there will be increased demand for land that can accommodate distribution centers. We also believe that the trend toward re-shoring will increase opportunities for manufacturing growth,” she said.
“I hate to be the ‘Debbie Downer’ here, but the reality is that this was a horrible year for small businesses,” said Debra Clark, executive director of Huntingdon County Business & Industry.
HCB&I funded five new projects in 2020, amounting to more than $400,000 in financing and leading to the creation of 12 new jobs, Clark said.
“Our economy is still very much in survival mode, but I’m optimistic that we will begin to recover in 2021. We plan on continuing our efforts to provide educational and financial support to our business community. We are looking forward to offering in person instruction, client meetings and events,” she said.
HCB&I offered assistance to hundreds of business owners in applying for relief funding, helping them to diversify their business models to maintain some form of operation throughout the restrictions.
“We also offered a public forum for the business community to address our elected officials regarding the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. If we are counting outside funding from our partners for loan clients, then we are around a million dollars in financing for businesses in the county. Most of the projects we funded this year have been forced to delay construction due to the inflated prices of building materials and supplies — that has been another negative effect of COVID-19,” Clark said.
Despite the pandemic, there were at least two highlights in the county in 2020 — including the rebirth of the East Broad Top Railroad.
“The Kovalchick Family, who has owned the railroad since 1956, sold it to the EBT Foundation Inc. in February 2020,” Clark said. “The EBT held several events in the past year, including celebrating 60 years of tourist services on the railroad. They plan on having regularly scheduled tourist passenger services available in 2021. We predict a surge of economic activity in the area as the EBT, once again, becomes a must-visit attraction.”
The $2.5 million retaining wall project along Pennsylvania Avenue in Mount Union broke ground in October after nearly a decade of discussions, Clark said.
“Funding from DCED, PennDOT and a Community Development Block grant, will be used to excavate the failing wall, install a newly designed wall, sidewalks, curbing, stormwater piping, sewer manholes and reconstruct the roadway. The deterioration of the existing wall caused many safety concerns, road closures and was negatively impacting the property values and businesses in the area. Once the new wall is completed, those issues will be resolved,” Clark said.
One benefit of the pandemic was that the county had one of its best years for tourism and lodging.
“The pandemic offered a new opportunity for those living in urban areas to telework, so many found themselves working remotely from somewhere in ‘Raystown Country.’ Locals also took advantage of our beautiful surroundings, hiking and biking the many trails, boating, kayaking and floating on Raystown Lake or the Juniata River,” Clark said. “With school and work closures, and the need to social distance, the amazing landscapes of Huntingdon County were open to explore.”
Small businesses came together to help each other during the year.
“They shared ideas, methods and supplies to keep each other afloat and supported each other on social media platforms and partnered to offer even more products and services to customers. The stigma of competition among businesses, whether real or perceived, was washed away in 2020. This was a year that most would soon like to forget, but I hope that we take the care, compassion and kindness with us into 2021,” Clark said.
Many of the county’s smallest businesses as well as those manufacturers that were not deemed as “essential” at the beginning of the restrictions in the spring had difficult times over 2020.
“JARI spent much time over 2020 providing technical assistance to our small business clients, supporting our defense sector as ‘essential’ to the defense of our country, and providing access to special financing opportunities to those companies eligible for both federal and state programs,” said President Linda Thomson of Johnstown Area Regional Industries.
“JARI assisted 67 companies to get approved for Pennsylvania programs. In addition, we counseled and made referrals to hundreds of companies related to the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection Programs,” Thomson said.
In 2020, JARI made 22 micro loans totaling more $600,000 to small entrepreneurs and helped more than 70 self-employed individuals to understand and navigate pandemic unemployment assistance, Thomson said.
Major projects for 2020 included Cleveland Bros. purchasing and starting operations in the former Gamesa Industrial Park building in Cambria Township and the completion of Creator Square in downtown Johnstown opening up a makerspace for new entrepreneurs, Thomson said.
JARI continued international outreach to the defense sector in both Denmark and Norway and JARI’s procurement program expanded into new geography that now includes Cambria, Somerset, Fayette and Indiana counties,Thomson said.
She said JARI’s main initiative for 2021 will be to help companies and individuals recover from the pandemic — a new grant from ARC Power will support the Startup Alleghenies initiative throughout the Southern Alleghenies region by providing capital to support entrepreneurs. Additional work is underway to bring in funding from the U.S. Treasury.
JARI’S goals for 2021 include providing 4,000 hours of technical assistance to small businesses, creating 20 new business start-ups, deploying 30 micro loans totaling $900,000 and expanding supply chain opportunities within the shale gas and defense sectors, Thomson said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.