Speaking before a crowd of more than 200 business and community leaders at an event sponsored by the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, the Centre County commissioners talked about the state of the county on Sept. 9 at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center.
Before the event, CBICC President and CEO Vern Squier tipped off the crowd that it was board Chairman Michael Pipe’s birthday and the crowd sang to wish him a happy birthday. Pipe then outlined a year for the county that saw a lot of initiatives move forward.
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL PIPE
“Since our last state of the county held on Sept. 6, 2018, there has been progress and momentum on our priority projects, top initiatives and pressing challenges,” said Pipe.
Pipe first talked about the county work in helping to expand high-speed broadband internet service to rural parts of the county by allowing service providers to rent space on county 911 towers in a private-public partnership.
“In communities without broadband access, kids have less educational opportunities, business can’t grow, health care utilization is worse and families find it more difficult to stay in touch,” said Pipe.
Centre WISP has since installed equipment on the county Centre Hall 911 tower and have been approved to set up on the Woodward tower as well. “We are enthusiastic about this public-private partnership and believe that this model can be replicated in other areas of the commonwealth and the country.”
Pipe then discussed the work the county did to update voting machines.
“Centre County was one out of nine counties of the 67 counties in the commonwealth to employ the new election machines for the May 2019 primary election,” said Pipe, adding that Centre County again took the lead on the matter.
Pipe then spoke on how the increased hotel occupancy tax the county implemented in April will help promote tourism in the region.
“Earlier this year, the board voted to take the hotel tax from 2.5 percent to 5 percent. This enables the Convention and Visitors Bureau to make strategic investments in staffing and marketing and vision. In addition, over $700,000 in grants were allocated to our nonprofit organizations that focus is to bring in tourists to Centre County. Looking towards next year’s grant allocations, that amount may approach $1 million,” said Pipe.
The board also took on the challenge of cyber security by hiring a chief information officer, Pipe said. He also highlighted how the drug court has been operating for the past 18 months and has seen two graduates from the program.
“(They) are living proof that recovery is possible and hope has no bounds. Their courage is contagious and we continue to be humbled by the recover community here in Centre County that seeks sobriety and peace in the never ending storm of addiction and pain,” he said. “We will continue to fund programs that work and seek out new ones, as well, to support these folks in their recovery journey.”
Pipe also highlighted the solar panel array that is to be constructed at the Centre County Correctional Facility.
“Our solar panels will be arriving by the end of October. Construction and installation will be finished by January of 2020 and we will be generating power by the end of first quarter of 2020,” said Pipe.
He said the county’s finances continue to be strong, with the county’s net position increased by $300,000 at the end of 2018.
Pipe also took time to highlight the $3.6 million in funding Centre County received from PennDOT to fix five structurally deficient local bridges.
“With the funds distributed by PennDOT, the county and the municipalities here in the area, this brings a total of $4 million invested in transportation and safety,” said Pipe.
Pipe also touted the county’s paid parental leave program for its workers who have a child through birth, foster or adoption — a first for a county in central Pennsylvania.
Looking toward the future, Pipe said the county has lots coming up, citing the Mental Health Crisis Delivery System Task Force it is putting together along with the borough of State College, and beginning the process of the 2020 census. He also said the county must decide what to do with the Centre Crest site in Bellefonte when the nursing home moves to a new location.
He said the elections office will begin recruiting poll workers to prepare for the upcoming 2020 presidential election that Pipe believes will have the largest turnout of any election in the county’s history.
COMMISSIONERS STEVEN DERSHEM
Commissioner Steven Dershem took time to talk about some initiatives that he “feels most passionate about” and started out highlighting the fact that September is National Substance Abuse Recovery Month.
“We here in Centre County have worked tirelessly with members of the community ... this has been such an amazing collaboration between law enforcement, the social services community and all levels of government to really understand and really get our hearts and heads around what it takes to make our country a better place to live,” said Dershem.
He said Centre County is seeing a historically low number of overdose deaths this year, especially compared to surrounding counties.
“This year we are at two overdose deaths as of yesterday. If you think about that, at this time last year, we were at 17. I don’t pretend to understand all the dynamics of that,” said Dershem. “But I will tell you that Centre County is a unique place in that we do work together in our programs and processes and problems.”
He said the collaboration together is something that he believes will continue to happen in order to keep handling issues such as addiction.
“When you see the pain and hurt that this has caused with so many in the community, you will realize how important it is to continue to monitor and keep it under control,” said Dershem. He said education, reducing stigma and finding treatment are they ways the county and its partners are working to combat the opioid crisis.
But, Dershem said that while the amount of heroin-related deaths has gone down, the use of other substances has gone up. He said methamphetamine and benzodiazepine use is on the rise.
He also said the county has work to do in finding treatment for people with co-occuring mental health disorders and drug addiction issues.
“But we have expanded our mental health and our drug and alcohol programs in our jail to try and accommodate some of those issues,” said Dershem. “And we have taken the step to bring in a full body scanner, so when an inmate goes into the jail, they do a full body scan to make sure that they don’t have any drugs and weapons or any contraband at all on them.”
Dershem also spoke about the updates to the courthouse and other county buildings that will make them more energy efficient, noting it will be a huge benefit for the county in coming years. He showed a picture of the old boiler at the courthouse and the newly installed one and the difference was so striking that the crowd let out a little laugh.
“We have seen some definite improvements so far, and when it comes to the courthouse this time next year you will probably see some dramatic changes in the way of the structure and layout of the facility,” said Dershem.
Dershem talked about a cyber response plan that was developed by the county in case of cyber attack on the county.
“In the unlikely event, but a real possibility, that we are impacted by a cyber threat, we have an immediate response plan in place to deal with it more effectively,” said Dershem.
Dershem ended by referring to the black vultures that have been roosting on the Willowbank Building causing damage to the roof. He joked that they are the “unofficial county bird.” He said the county is working to humanely find a solution to the problem.
COMMISSIONER MARK HIGGINS
Higgins spoke last and focused on the economic diversity that the county is working to bring to the area. He first pointed to the infrastructure improvements coming to Centre County.
“By working together we have created more diversity in Centre County’s economy,” said Higgins. “A few years ago people were talking about how we had all of our eggs in the Penn State basket. Penn State is great, it is marvelous to have a world-renowned research university in your back yard, but again from two years ago, 42 percent of the paychecks in Centre County have the words ‘Penn State’ on them.
"So the commissioners have worked together with a broad variety of stakeholders, including the Drive Forward initiative of the CBICC, that have helped us receive $180 million in state and federal funding for the high speed interchange of I-80 and I-99. It will help our economy. It will save lives. Locally we chipped in another $7 million for the improvements of the local interchange.”
Higgins added that the future plan to improve Route 322 from Potters Mills to Boalsburg looks to be an estimated $800 million project that will help better connect the county to the eastern part of the state.
Higgins said the natural gas project in Centre Hall, investments in the airport and the local bridge projects that Pipe spoke of are all examples of the way the county is becoming a more viable place economically.
Higgins added that Centre County is a preferred location for a potential cheese factory, something that would potentially bring jobs to the area.
Recruiting people from outside the region helps the economic diversity, Higgins said, adding that the CBICC, Penn State and Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership were all instrumental in bringing in people for high skilled jobs in the area.
By working with the CBICC, and other municipalities, Higgins said KCF and Sensor Networks both stayed local and recently invested in the State College area.
“We kept KCF in downtown State College and they added an additional 100 jobs on top of that. With Sensor Networks, from the time Vern (Squier) started talking with them, to where they are forecasted to be in another two years, should be 75 additional local, good paying manufacturing jobs,” said Higgins.
He said the county has worked with MVEDP and Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation to assist Diamondback Truck Covers, APP and Organic Climbing in adding new jobs.
“We continue to have 150 new startups every year, spread throughout the entire county,” said Higgins.
He added that 12 business incubators in the county provide a place for business to get off the ground.
“According to my research, that is about the largest number of physical spaces that do business incubation in a medium-sized county in the entire United States,” said Higgins. Three of those incubators are county affiliated.
Higgins ended by saying that the upcoming census is important for the entire state.
“Pennsylvania is probably going to lose another congressional district unless we count everybody on April 1, 2020, so please let’s count everyone,” said Higgins.