NORTHWEST PENNSYLVANIA Lawmaker hears of ways to boost region's economy

The committee has been traveling across the state to find out which development programs are working.
GREENVILLE, Pa. -- The chairman of the state Senate Democratic Policy Committee wasn't bothered by the fact that only one Greenville elected official showed up at a roundtable discussion on the area's economy Tuesday.
This wasn't just about Greenville, said Sen. Richard Kasunic of Dunbar, D-32nd.
The focus of the hearing was on the economic problems of northwestern Pennsylvania in particular and the economy of the state in general, he said, noting there was representation at the meeting from Mercer County, organized labor and the cities of Sharon and Farrell.
Kasunic said the session was the latest in a series his committee has been conducting across the state in an effort to learn which economic development programs are working and which aren't. The goal is to take that information back to Harrisburg and craft legislation to improve economic development, he said.
About two dozen people attended the meeting at Greenville High School and Councilwoman Pamela Auchter was the only elected official from the borough there. She left the two-hour session early without making any comment.
A typical problem
Kasunic said Greenville's problems (the loss of some 2,200 jobs when Trinity Industries moved its railroad car-manufacturing plant to Mexico and the resultant loss of more than $300,000 a year in wage tax receipts) aren't unique.
Other areas of the state have lost manufacturing plants, face rising unemployment rates and many have seen an exodus of the 18-24 age group for jobs elsewhere.
One program designed to foster new industrial development was the creation of the Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) four years ago, offering a tax-free environment for companies moving into a designated area, but it hasn't been a success story, Kasunic said.
Most of the zones created by the state remain empty, he said, noting that some development on the local zone that stretches through the Shenango Valley is the only partial success story he has heard so far.
Mayor David O. Ryan of Sharon was critical of the KOZ program, urging the senators to take a look at revamping it because a KOZ burdens a community's police, fire and other resources. There is no one to cover that additional cost because companies in a KOZ don't have to pay taxes for 11 years, he said.
"We can't hold our breath that long," said Farrell Mayor William Morocco, suggesting the state find some way to provide money for municipalities that are sites of KOZ property.
Development money
County Commissioner Olivia Lazor said local governments need state money to develop land for economic development. Mercer County has less than 200 acres of industrial "site-ready" property and doesn't have funds to put in roads, sewers and other improvements needed to attract industry, she said.
Lazor also suggested that the state process of providing loans be simplified so it can be done on a county-by-county basis rather than having a number of different industrial development groups in a county filing their own applications for funding.
Other senators at the meeting were Sean Logan of Monroeville, D-45th, Jay Costa of Pittsburgh, D-43rd, and Jack Wagner of Pittsburgh, D-42nd.

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