COVID-19, lamentably, is still in business and affecting businesses globally and locally. The pandemic’s impact is not as profound now, yet it remains part of a mix of factors that has cast a financial pall over the United States and other nations. This collection of conundrums heads the Observer-Reporter’s annual list of top 10 business stories.
1. Money matters
Consumers have had to cope with soaring inflation, supply chain issues, high prices of goods, diminished home-buying options, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Great Resignation. The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates in an effort to fend off a recession, and may continue to bump them up in 2023.
There, however, have been some positive financial signs recently. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that inflation was cooling; consumer spending had risen modestly in November; and supply chains were operating normally. Hiring and wages are up.
Food and restaurant prices are still elevated, and numerous businesses are continuing to post “help wanted signs,” but after rising to historic heights, gasoline prices have plunged to an 18-month low nationwide.
2. Mon Valley Alliance continues its progressive ways
It was a big year for the Mon Valley Alliance.
A new CEO was named, as Jamie Colecchi was tabbed to lead the agency in April. Colecchi replaced Ben Brown, who resigned as CEO to be the new director of client experience and innovation for Community Bank.
At that time, Mary Stollar was named the new director of real estate and economic development for the organization.
Also, Colecchi and his three staffers moved into the former Community Bank branch building in the center of Monongahela’s business district in September.
MVA launched its Economic Playbook in April. The playbook is a coordinated and collaborative marketing and promotion strategy to advance economic development and continued investment in the municipalities.
MVA also received a $2 million state grant to continue building out the Donora Industrial Park with the expansion of Barchemy, a chocolate and confectionery manufacturer.
The organization also announced the first Neighborhood Partnership Program to be established in the mid-Mon Valley. This NPP is a six-year plan designed to drive $1.5 million into Charleroi for community improvement projects and social services.
3. Washington Health System endures
It started as a small hospital in 1897, eventually merged with another health-care facility in the city, and later began to blossom in a spacious new home officials built on farmland a local family donated.
A full 125 years following its launch, Washington Hospital continues to grow. It has expanded into Washington Health System, with 20-plus locations and an estimated 2,000 full- and part-time employees, 300 medical staff and 300 volunteers. It is the largest employer in Washington County and among the top employers in Greene, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry.
Being an independent health system is rife with challenges, yet WHS has dealt with two global pandemics, two world wars, polio, recessions, staggering inflation, and other contemporary issues.
“My lesson from our ancestors,” said president/CEO Brook Ward, “is they had less technology, less science and less knowledge than we have today, and made it through that time. If they can make it, we will make it as well.”
4. Dining comings, goings
One of the most popular restaurants in downtown Washington closed in late August, when spouses Michael and Georgetta Williamson retired and shut down Solomon’s Seafood and Grille after a 33-year run. “It’s sad, but it’s time,” Michael said following the closure.
The owners, classmates at Washington High School in the early ’70s, strove to provide a top-flight dining experience with a varied menu, efficient service and miles of smiles for patrons. They started with a small shop on Henderson Avenue in 1989, where they sold fresh fish and filled takeout orders, then four years later moved to a larger location that Michael built on Hall Avenue.
Following a successful stint in Washington, the owners of Chicco Baccello decided to open a second coffee house-bakery-deli in downtown Canonsburg. Chicco launched last winter in a street-level location along West Pike Street.
Two other Washington hot spots that, collectively, have been operating for more than 130 years are still going. Shorty’s Lunch has been grilling its signature hot dogs along West Chestnut Street for nearly 90 years, while Joe Vucic Jr. heads into his 42nd year preparing sweet treats at Joe’s Bakery.
5. Business Incubator marks first anniversary
Ignite Business Incubator celebrated its first anniversary at its location at 57 Chestnut St., Washington, on June 1.
During that first year, Ignite provided more than 700 hours of consultative support.
Another service provided by Ignite are the Ideas 2 Enterprise (I2E) Business Planning Workshop Cohorts, which offer courses for local entrepreneurs to assist in the creation of a formal business plan. The next cohort is scheduled for February.
Through these services, some businesses have been able to expand, while others that may have just had a mobile operation have been able to open up a brick-and-mortar facility.
“Seeing businesses succeed and expand their business model or open up a brick and mortar reaffirms that there is something special happening here in Washington County,” said Lauren LaGreca, Ignite manager. “Intentional actions create sustainable paths forward. We’re continuing to grow and do well, and that’s just a testament to what we have here in Washington with these entrepreneurs and these small business owners.”
Ignite evolved out of the Greater Washington Area Business Incubator. It connects, supports, educates and empowers entrepreneurs and small businesses by offering services such as consulting, advice or networking.
6.Economic development bounces back
Economic development is back on the upswing in the 10-county region.
That was a very important takeaway from the 15th annual Pittsburgh Region Business Investment Scorecard released in June by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its affiliate, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
That scorecard detailed business investment activity that was announced in 2021 – including capital investment and new and retained jobs,
Washington, Greene and Fayette counties all reported good numbers on the scorecard.
Washington County listed 18 investment projects, including Innovative Electronics developing a developing a 50,000-square-foot building at the Starpointe Business Park in Burgettstown. The county’s score card also listed 10 development projects.
Greene County listed three investment projects and one development project. Fayette County listed two development projects.
“Washington always tends to be among the more active counties,” said Jim Futrell, vice president of market research for the Allegheny Conference. “Greene tends to be a little quieter, although the announcements there doubled from two to four, and Fayette remains steady at two. It’s a nice rebound within those three counties.”
7. Broadband expansion continues
Broadband expansion into underserved and unserved areas remains a major priority.
Washington County launched its broadband initiative in January with a pilot program near Avella by partnering with Hickory Telephone to provide high-speed internet to Meadowcroft and 50 homes in Jefferson Township.
Multiple other projects were approved using federal American Rescue Plan Act money with telecommunication companies splitting the costs. County officials also announced a multi-year deal in October to bring broadband to 6,500 customers in 10 pockets across Washington County at an estimated cost of $50 million.
Greene County officials announced in December they had received a $1 million donation from CNX Foundation that will be used to partner with Kinetic by Windstream to install fiber cable in the northwestern section of the county. That project dovetails with other phases that include installing broadband in the southwestern corner of Greene County and upgrading services for population centers around Waynesburg, Carmichaels and Mt. Morris.
Fayette County received $1.1 million in state grants to be used for expansion of broadband services into some underserved areas of the county. That helps the county build upon $5.3 million spent on its VITALink initiative to install 29 internet “hot spots” across the county using federal CARES Act stimulus money in late 2020.
Broadband also is getting broad support among proponents of the McGuffey Area Revitalization Initiative, which focuses on economic development and revitalization through the Interstate 70-Route 40 corridor, stretching from Washington to the West Virginia panhandle.
8. Cracker plant operating
Six years after Royal Dutch Shell announced it would, indeed, build an ethylene cracker plant in Beaver County, the petrochemical complex officially began commercial operations in November.
The $6 billion project, in Potter Township along the Ohio River, is going full bore – and getting into trouble. Shell went beyond its air permit limits two months in a row this fall, during startup activities, and received a notice of violation from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The manufacturing of plastics is expected to be a major outcome of the operation. A cracker plant “cracks” ethane molecules into petrochemical building blocks that can be refined to create polyethylene, a plastic used for various purposes, from food packaging to automotive parts.
Pennsylvania offered a $1.6 billion tax incentive to Shell to construct the complex in Beaver County in exchange for 600 ongoing jobs.
9. Claysville area project
An ambitious economic development/revitalization project along the Interstate 70-Route 40 corridor, stretching from Washington to the West Virginia panhandle, has a long way to go. But it is making headway.
Revitalizing Main Street (Route 40) is a major objective of the Claysville Area Preservation and Revitalization Initiative (CAPRI). While the borough’s retail strip is fairly vibrant, improvements are needed in the only business district located within the expansive McGuffey School District.
Local officials have received $116,250 in tax credits from the state to go toward the acquisition and possible rehabilitation of the Sprowls Hardware complex at 234-238 Main St., a blighted complex of buildings that has been vacant since 2013. Local entrepreneur Rick Newton calls it “an iconic building in the center of the community.”
10. Roller skating returns to Donora with Roll ‘R’ Way
Roll ‘R’ Way Skating Center opened Nov. 4 and was greeted by long lines of people waiting to get in each of the first two nights. Steady crowds continue to come the rink at 590 Galiffa Drive.
“It’s been good,” said Frank Quintin, owner of Roll ‘R’ Way. “Things are moving.”
Quintin purchased the former Valley Skating Center, which was built in 1983 by the Shoup Family and remained open until August of this year. Linda Shoup Miner, the facility’s owner, said none of her offspring was interested in operating the business, so it was sold.
While the skating center’s early days have featured mainly skating and an arcade, there are big plans. Pickleball is expected to start in the beginning of the new year and two concerts already are scheduled.