The future is on us, my friends. The tri-state region has an opportunity to be anything we choose.

We have the resources to build our future. We have the people, places and things necessary. We have the technology. Our counties have redevelopment and economic development agencies, and we have independent nonprofits like the Mon Valley Alliance.

But do we have the courage to step into the unknown together?

Transforming our region means developing the next generation of leaders. The only way real, transformative change can happen is through everyday people who love this area. This is us. Leadership requires individual leaders, successful corporations, leading nonprofit organizations, and the ability to work together to develop regional economic strategies.

A growing number of entrepreneurs, from millennials to old-timers like me, are returning to their roots to build a business. We must invest in these entrepreneurs, but cannot stop there. We must implement innovative business development strategies that strengthen our regional economy and help local innovators create opportunities in their home communities.

We must support them by investing in critical infrastructure, especially broadband, and transportation, including river, railroads and water/wastewater systems.

Investment in these critical infrastructure elements may attract new development and support the growth, expansion and economic health of our region’s existing business community. This investment creates a domino effect of economic and employment opportunities.

Redeveloping our abandoned – and, in many cases, decayed – riverfront brownfields brings benefits to our communities beyond job creation and encouraging private investment. Our health is directly connected to the Monongahela River. Cleaning the river of pollutants and remediating and repurposing our brownfields enhances our environment and the health of our children.

Everything we need from the natural environment is in place, and the built environment is well on its way. A skilled and healthy local workforce is another major competitive advantage for our region.

The global economy has arrived in our region. Education and training will be driving forces behind our economic growth, preparing students and workers to compete successfully on the world stage.

We must develop workforce and education programs to build future workforces, which will require skills and training we haven’t had. Our universities, high schools and middle schools must work in partnership with our trades, technical schools and career and technical schools.

Our corporate partners must continue their good work by investing in the knowledge, skills and health of our residents. Investing in sector-based strategies to maximize the economic strengths of region and developing business incubators and maker spaces to launch our next big idea are good business strategies.

Our economic renaissance is fueled by the abundant energy that lies beneath our feet. I believe we can grow our manufacturing base, create thousands of family-sustaining jobs AND protect our environment. Yes, our children, that workforce of the future, can live well financially with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. In fact, I think they deserve it.

In the 1960s and ’70s, I was part of the workforce of the future, when pretty much everyone who wanted a job had one. I grew up along the industrial Mon River. I won’t say it was polluted, but it was very industrial.

Then when I was a young man, industry went away and left us their mess. I want a better environment, with a clean river, for my grandchildren, and better educational and job opportunities for them.

Our companies are more socially and environmentally responsible than industry has ever been. Through responsible shale gas development, our families, communities and environment can thrive.

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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