We are sitting atop one of the largest gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) basins on planet Earth. I don’t think that can be understated. But we have left this significant, some may even say historic, economic opportunity largely untapped. We have not one, but three significant shale plays within our region. The Marcellus is joined by portions of her sisters, the Utica and Devonian shales.

I remember as a kid listening to my uncle Ed Protin, a steel industry executive in the 1930s and ’40s who holds numerous patents including one for a pipe joint for pipes, such as oil-well pump tubing, rotary well-drilling columns, well casings, etc., talk about the abundant natural resources that led the pioneers of the steel industry to Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The infrastructure they built that drove the steel industry to historic heights sustained us for generations. They built roads and bridges, railroads and turned our rivers into a freight superhighway. It is just as true now as it was over one hundred years ago, having a robust infrastructure system is critical to the future development of our region. I call this critical infrastructure our mobility network. This network is much more important to our future than simply defining how we move around the region. Our roads, bridges, rivers and railroads, by design, should enable efficient mobility. And our broadband network should provide the ability to communicate effectively. Does our existing infrastructure measure up? Are we making the grade?

Infrastructure enables trade, powers businesses, connects workers to their jobs, creates opportunities for struggling communities and protects the region from an increasingly unpredictable natural environment. Infrastructure is the backbone of a healthy economy. Our region has seen many demographic and cultural changes over the past several decades, such as the aging and diversification of our population, which demonstrate the need for new transportation and telecommunications to connect people and communities.

Industry relies on this critical infrastructure. The corporations heading our way will be making big splash investments in our future. But we cannot forget about our small business community. We must ensure community development and infrastructure initiatives benefit small businesses and their local communities as well. They have been driving our economy and investments in our region’s economic development for decades.

This sector demands investment in broadband. Expanding broadband availability is crucial for small businesses and other local economic development professionals in underserved and rural areas of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties. This critical infrastructure supports the growth of an entrepreneurial economy and creates a platform for our small businesses to compete in the global marketplace by providing access to markets, customers and services to support operations via the internet.

Critical infrastructure is not just the built environment. Our infrastructure also includes labor. Our people who make up our labor force are squarely in the path to progress. We can be the vehicle that drives the region forward, or the roadblock that stops it in its tracks. Investment in our workforce via collaborative tech school and university programs in partnership with the corporate community will replenish our historically robust talent pool.

How about some numbers? According to a study conducted by the American Chemistry Council, if companies continue to invest in and build the petrochemical industry in the region, a petrochemical hub in the quad-state region could generate, by 2025, an estimated 25,664 direct jobs (chemical and plastics products manufacturing), 43,042 indirect (supply chain) jobs, and 32,112 “payroll-induced” jobs. In Pennsylvania alone, Forge the Future projects $60 billion or approximately 6-9% growth in annual state GDP and roughly 100,000 more jobs over 10 years.

Phew … I’m glad we got that out of the way. I’m not a numbers guy, but these are big ones. How can you ignore 100,000 jobs? After all, isn’t that what economic development is all about? Did I mention that those big numbers represent only the chemical and plastics industry? That represents nearly everything we touch in our daily lives, our cars, clothes, pharmaceuticals, appliances, the list goes on. This is a $300 billion global market that will grow an average of 5% per year for the at least the next 10 years. Sounds like a pretty good investment.

By the way, Pennsylvania is still the No. 2 steel-producing state in the United States. We have an opportunity to assist our region’s steel manufacturers become increasingly competitive by coupling our historic experience and our potentially low-cost energy resource. Think about that, Southwestern Pennsylvania leading the way in steel production. Somewhere Uncle Ed is smiling.

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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