Ajay Goel is owner and chief executive officer of Ameri-Precision Metals, on Curry Avenue just inside the Canonsburg Borough limits. He also was host Wednesday to a virtual economic recovery workshop organized by the state Senate Majority Policy Committee.
Goel was one of the featured speakers as well, and his company’s plight is emblematic of issues facing many other businesses and organizations across Pennsylvania during COVID-19.
“We decided to manufacture this product and not import it from six or seven countries,” said the leader of the specialty steel company, into a microphone a short stroll from his office. “For the last 40 years, there has not been a steel plant in the area like this one.”
But first, the company has to manufacture the manufacturing plant. Construction began March 13, but less than a week later, Gov. Tom Wolf shut down numerous industries, including construction, in an effort to control spread of the coronavirus. Work at Ameri-Precision halted for several months before being allowed to resume, and the firm has gotten only through phase one of building the plant.
Now Goel, who also owns Ameri-Source Specialty Products in Bethel Park, is concerned. He said he has not laid off anyone in Bethel Park, and has hired 50 for the Canonsburg site. Yet demand for his product has fallen 80%, and he is concerned.
“It’s difficult to get lenders to give us money,” he said. “I’m really afraid that if we try to bring back manufacturing in this area, it will be difficult for companies like us to survive unless there is access to capital.”
Financial woes and recovery were the main themes of a spirited workshop that featured about a dozen speakers, five of them business people from Washington County and a museum director from Greene. Several legislators spoke as well during an event requested by state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township, and moderated by Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill/Berks counties.
“Pennsylvania faces a $5 billion budget shortfall over the next two years,” said Argall, the majority policy chair.
A number of the Republican senators, and other speakers, criticized the Democratic governor for his shutdowns, contending they have been too long and sometimes based on dubious reasoning. One speaker referred to Wolf’s “consistency of inconsistency.”
“We did what we were asked,” said Civil Knox, general manager of Washington Crown Center. “We reduced our hours of operation and were out of work for months.”
Knox said the North Franklin Township mall had 94% occupancy before the pandemic struck the region in mid-March, but “some tenants left and others are facing challenges.” She said the mall has canceled all of its events since Kids Fest took place March 7.
“Now our trick-or-treat event is in jeopardy. It’s not all gloom and doom, but the rope is thinning.”
Matthew Cumberledge, executive director of the Greene County Historical Society, said the museum has struggled financially during the pandemic, “but our organization is maintaining operations. We’ve had no layoffs.
“We’ve gotten orders with no guidelines to implement them. This divides people in the state and counties. I think we need answers and a plan.”
Jeff King, general manager of Redford Photography, said the March shutdown of his studio and area schools adversely affected his operation in North Strabane Township. “Spring sports, proms, other events make up a big percentage of our business,” he said. “Even now, we’re seeing effects with schools. We’re taking a lot of pictures outside, which is not the best thing to do.
“What we need now more than ever is common sense. What the state needs is a lot more common sense.”
Christine Blaine, vice president of the Washington Wild Things, was talking more than baseball. She said the team uses Wild Things Park for numerous community-related events, but has done a lot of canceling.
“We’re looking toward 2021, but we’re afraid to plan because we can’t afford to invest more money and have this happen again.”
She said the team “created a way to play” by forming a four-team pod, but revenue was down “70% as of July, and that doesn’t include August.”
Blaine is hoping for better times. “We need normalcy, to live life to the fullest,” she said. “If not, what’s the sense of being here?”
Bartolotta, chair of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, closed the workshop by expressing concerns – financial ones.
“When the (budget) coffers are empty, how do you raise revenues? Higher taxes is not the way.”
As for attracting businesses, she said: “I can’t imagine any industry would want to come into Pennsylvania with the way we’re doing things now. We have to change course, and it has to be now.
“Protecting lives and protecting livelihoods are not mutually exclusive.”