Along the Monongahela River, from Brownsville to McKeesport, there is anticipation for the next phase of the natural gas industry. Leaders in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties have been planning for this. And through this comprehensive process, leaders are creating a platform for industry to create jobs and revitalize an economy.

What will happen in the Mon Valley as a result of development in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays is completely up to us. A study by the American Chemical Council examined the ethane supply in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, and found up to five ethane cracker plants could be supported in the region, creating an Appalachian petrochemical hub.

We are in the center of it all. Towns along the Mon such as Brownsville, Charleroi, Donora and Monongahela, which were once economic generators, want to revitalize their downtowns and improve quality of life. These proud communities were abandoned by the steel industry, but this new opportunity can help restore these downtowns, making them healthy, walkable and economically vibrant again.

Within a generation, we have gone from a group of interconnected local economies that supported the basic needs of all people to towns beset by blight, crime and insecurity. To regain the prosperity realized by our parents and grandparents, we must connect leaders from the public and private sectors in focused, collaborative discussions to develop solutions that work. Driving investment toward local economies, where it can have the greatest impact, is sound business strategy.

This will require working on multiple fronts, such as investing in education, technology, infrastructure and broadband. And we must cultivate our entrepreneurial community and develop resources to stimulate home-grown business startups. Investment in building long-term consensus in the region must be a top priority, and that means actively engaging leaders of the next generation. Most important, we must develop a network of organizations to build a future in which people and communities will thrive.

The phrase “back in the day” makes me cringe because not everything was sunshine and rainbows then. Life was simpler, but the only things that were better or cooler were cars, and they are mere antiques now. You wouldn’t want to rely on a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere to get you to work.

One other thing was better back then: we collaborated. Local elected officials and business leaders worked together for the greater good. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., at its Allenport and Monessen plants, not only employed 10,000 families in the Mon Valley, they supported our Little League teams, our schools and our communities.

We must reconnect our local communities to leverage purchasing power, policy change, sustainable economic development and marketing dollars to attract job-creating manufacturing operations to the region. These relationships developed today will foster collaboration across all sectors and build a resilient and sustainable long-term regional economy tomorrow.

The Mon Valley needs shale gas development. Before we drive this opportunity to another state or region, let’s remember our roots. Let’s remember what our industry partners did for us back in the day. Let’s work with our corporate community to protect our natural resources. Let’s revitalize our communities at the neighborhood level. Let’s work to create family-sustaining jobs so our children can stay here, and children of other regions can move here.

We have been like the antique car that was fast and powerful at one time, but has been collecting dust while waiting for someone to put it back on the road. This opportunity will impact us positively for 50 years, or it will sail past us on its way to the Ohio River and beyond.

We must work together or we will hand over the keys of a broken-down car with no motor to the next generation.

Jamie Protin is founder and principal of The Protin Group in Belle Vernon.

To submit business-related columns, email Rick Shrum at rshrum@observer-reporter.com.

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