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Half a billion invested in county last year

With more than a half-billion dollars invested in 2019 alone, Washington County is considered “the envy of other counties” in Pennsylvania.

The eighth annual Washington County State of the Economy opened Thursday with the Washington County Board of Commissioners’ report on industry highlights from the previous year, touting that businesses contributed nearly $514 million in investments and 930 new or retained jobs.

Nearly 400 industry leaders attended the event at the Hilton Garden Inn Pittsburgh/Southpointe. Each commissioner presented briefly before fielding questions from Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Kotula.

Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan focused her introductory remarks on the energy industry, Larry Maggi on manufacturing, and Nick Sherman on the local share account.

“We really are the envy of other counties throughout the commonwealth,” Irey Vaughan said.

Commissioners’ countywide highlights included:

  • 817 cubic feet of natural gas was produced in the county last year from 1,655 wells, with $8.4 million in impact fees.
  • TechnipFMC intends to establish a regional hub, combining two centers, in Speers Industrial Park that will repair, manufacture and test equipment for the oil and gas industry. The business will invest $13.3 million in the project and employ 168 people full time in the next three years.
  • Sprague Energy is set to complete a $3 million heating fuel bulk plant at its West Chestnut Street location later this year.
  • Premier Automotive, based in Monroeville, opened a second location in Chartiers Township.
  • Dynamet is spending $27 million to rebuild from a 2018 fire, as well as other updates. Precision Marshall Steel’s acquisition of DB&S Steel will expand its production equipment and distribution network.
  • A $1 million grant to the Mon Valley Alliance will aid in constructing a building in Alta Vista Business Park.
  • $5 million in grants and loans to Running Brooke II Associates will fund the redevelopment of the former Brockway Glass Plant property in Canton Township.
  • Pad-ready sites in the third phase of the Starpointe Business Park will be constructed with a $1 million grant.
  • LSA funds have invested $97 million over the past decade in a variety of projects.

Maggi was especially energized about GE Renewable Energy’s expansion in the Mon Valley.

“GE Renewable Energy will add 100 jobs to its existing workforce at its Mon Valley Plant in the Speers Industrial Park. The expansion is the result of a consolidation of switchgear operations by the company ... It is exciting when a Fortune 50 company like GE is selecting the Mon Valley for its expansion and manufacturing plans,” touted Maggi.

“These investments will ensure we remain competitive in attracting new manufacturers or accommodate the expansions of existing companies in Washington County,” Maggi said, adding that though elected officials often like to brag they’re creating jobs, those in attendance at Thursday’s event were the ones doing the true work.

“You’re creating jobs. Elected officials only create the environment for you to work in.”

Washington County’s proximity to other major economic drivers, like the cracker plant in Beaver County, is also a significant asset.

Newly elected Sherman admitted that he had very little to do with the accomplishments of the previous year, but said to move forward, it’s essential to build on historical successes.

Irey Vaughan said the county’s next priority is to find a location for the next business park for the county, as well as updating the economic plan and conducting a facility needs study.

Sherman added that it’s also important to bridge transportation gaps, from rural regions to Washington and Pittsburgh. With Uber testing autonomous cars just north of us, why couldn’t we get a piece of that development?

“Far gone are the days we’re developing these big, expensive rail projects,” Sherman said.

Transportation was a heavy focus for Stefani Pashman during her question-and-answer session. Pashman is the CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which represents a 10-county region spanning from Greene to Lawrence, Indiana to Fayette. Though the sector is lagging behind state and national growth averages – 3% compared to 6 and 10%, respectively – transportation and connectivity are chief concerns.

“We need to do better in getting people where they need to go,” Pashman said.

About half of the region’s college graduates eventually leave, so Pashman said her organization is assisting businesses to develop their interns to encourage young professionals to live and work here.

The group is also in the midst of crafting a regional brand to have one cohesive message about Southwestern Pennsylvania, to launch later this summer.

“We speak with many voices when we talk about the 10 counties,” she said.

A cruise ship courtship

A 23-year-old Sara Botkin knew she wasn’t embarking on an ordinary Caribbean cruise. It was the beginning of a new millennium, and her travel partner and wingman was her 84-year-old grandfather. She certainly didn’t know the vacation would lead to “happily ever after.”

Sara had never been on a cruise, but she heard how much fun her friends had on one. She had trouble finding someone to go with her, so she asked her grandpa, Gay Banes.

“He said, ‘All right, all right,’” Sara said. “He was always an adventurous person. I just knew he’d be fun to travel with.”

He lived in Pittsburgh, and she lived in New York City, where she was pursuing a singing career. They met up in Fort Lauderdale and set sail on “The Century” Sept. 16, 2000. A party was held the first night, with a dinner at 6 p.m.

“I was a waiter, and Sara and her grandfather were assigned to my table,” said Ovi Manciu.

He was born and raised in Romania, but after college he wanted to “see the world,” he said. He took a job working on the cruise ship and had held the position for five years when he met Sara.

“That first night she came was a Saturday night, and those are the craziest nights for us,” Ovi said. “So it was like running like a chicken without the head, with people coming in and not knowing their tables.”

Ovi remembers that Sara and her grandfather were seated at table 508. Her grandfather, whose parents were from Hungary, started making conversation with Ovi. He saw Ovi’s name tag said that he was from Romania, which borders Hungary. Sara said her grandfather hit it off with Ovi right away, and she also found him to be charming and attractive.

“I remember Ovi coming over and looking so dashing in his tuxedo,” she said. “I could tell he was so nice by the way he talked to my grandpa and was so kind and respectful.”

Ovi, 28 at the time, also noticed Sara, but there were rules about not socializing with passengers. The waitstaff wasn’t allowed to do touristy things with the passengers or access passenger hallways. Getting to know Sara posed a big risk for him – he could have been fired or worse, he said.

“I just felt she was really special,” he said. “That’s why I took the risk.”

And Sara could tell that he liked her.

“I’d see him taking orders at another table, and he’d look up and smile at me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Hey, I got seven days.’ I asked if he had any days off, and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, do you want to spend your day off with me?’ He said, ‘Yes.’”

Cruise rules be damned, he rented a car for them to tour Cozumel, Mexico, one of the stops on the cruise. They visited beaches, ate lunch, talked a lot and shared a first kiss. They spent as much time together as they could after that.

“I ended up abandoning Grandpa pretty quickly for Ovi,” Sara said. “Grandpa and I had all these tours booked together, but when I got to spend days with Ovi, he had to do his tours by himself.”

Sara was in love. As far as she was concerned, Ovi was the only fish in the sea worth catching.

“I never talked to another guy after that,” she said. “I remember at the end of the cruise Ovi said, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’”

The last breakfast at Ovi’s table, Sara sobbed, and didn’t stop sobbing the whole way home. She thought she’d never see him again, that it was over.

When his contract ended that November, he visited her in New York. The following month, she visited him and met his family in Romania. He got a transfer to a Manhattan/Bermuda cruise. She would meet his ship every Saturday when it returned to New York.

“I would buy a new dress every week; I would wear some fancy hat, and I would meet the cruise ship every Saturday,” Sara said. “We got really close really fast, like family.”

During the first year they dated, she was living in Brooklyn, but after she was mugged twice, Ovi paid for her to move to a nicer place in Queens.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks, Sara was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, where she worked as a financial analyst at Aon Insurance. She was headed to the 105th floor when the first plane struck the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.

When the building security guards told people to go back to their offices and stay inside the building, Sara, luckily, didn’t listen.

“I remember coming out of the building, looking up, seeing the hole in the building,” she said. “Somebody said it was a plane.”

Having no idea of the enormity of what was happening – the second plane hadn’t struck yet – she took a subway to Grand Central Station, where she used a pay phone to call her family. They were relieved to hear her voice.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘I want you to get out of Manhattan, go to your apartment and stay there,’” she said.

By then, both towers were burning, hundreds were dead, and the entire world was watching live news coverage in disbelief, horror and panic. Ovi was on a cruise ship in Bermuda when an officer on the ship turned on the television to show him the tragedy unfolding in New York.

“I realized,” he said. “I was worried because I knew she was there.”

It took him hours to get through to the U.S. but eventually he talked to her parents. They told him Sara was OK.

“My mom told me that Ovi was really emotional talking to her, because he couldn’t reach me – I didn’t have a cellphone,” Sara said.

Less than two weeks later, he asked Sara to be his wife. She said yes.

“I knew she was the one, and after Sept. 11, I just thought it was a good time,” he said. “My golf guys always joke that I caught her in a weak state of mind.”

“It just made you realize what was important in life,” Sara said.

They decided to move to Pittsburgh, where she got a position singing at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.

“The first day I had that church job, I ran up to the minister and said, ‘How soon could you marry me?’” Sara said. “I called my mom and said, ‘I’m getting married Saturday – Can you guys come?’”

Ovi and Sara were married Dec. 8, 2001. A year later they had a more traditional wedding, which Ovi’s family was able to attend.

Ovi had been living in the U.S. on a tourist visa, but when they were married, he received a work permit. After a year, he was able to apply for a green card, and in 2005, became an American citizen during a ceremony at the courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

“It was really a beautiful, meaningful service,” Sara said. “I remember Ovi taking his vow of loyalty to the United States.”

“It was really something, really special,” Ovi said.

Her grandfather attended that ceremony and their wedding. The couple remained very close to him until his death in 2008.

The couple now lives in North Strabane with their three children, Henry, 9, Alex, 6, and Charlotte, 1. Sara is president of her family’s business, Botkin Family Wealth Management, in Peters Township, and Ovi is a real estate agent for Howard Hanna.

Now, the whole family enjoys Caribbean cruises.

“Even now when we go on a cruise, the formal dinners are one of the highlights,” Ovi said. “The guys wear tuxedos and the ladies wear pretty dresses. It’s very fancy.”

Next month they plan to take a trip to Italy, just the two of them. This year, they’ll celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary, and 20 years since that magical cruise. They have a 23-foot boat and named it “The Century,” after the cruise ship on which they met.

“I’m just so proud of Ovi,” Sara said. “He came to a totally new country and is such a beloved member of my family. He’s the best dad, the best husband. My dad always says I hit the jackpot.”

Prosecutor fights child welfare agency over drug testing him

HARRISBURG – A lawyer who was recently sworn in as district attorney in southwestern Pennsylvania wants the state Supreme Court to rule that county child welfare officials investigating complaints about him do not have legal authority to compel him to take a drug test.

David J. Russo, Greene County’s top prosecutor, has been in a legal battle for more than a year with the Children and Youth Services agency from neighboring Fayette County, which was brought in to investigate three complaints about Russo.

The state Supreme Court took the case in October, granting the Fayette County agency’s request to review whether Superior Court was correct in deciding there was no legal grounds to force Russo to submit to “supervised” drug tests. Oral argument in the matter is set for March 11 in Philadelphia.

At the same time that he was successfully running for district attorney last year, Russo was also representing himself in the legal dispute over what he said had become a routine practice in Greene County – forcing people who were the subject of child abuse complaints to produce urine to be tested for drugs.

“I know it was very, very prevalent in my county up until Superior Court had ruled on our case,” Russo, a Republican elected in November, said in a phone interview Monday. “It was routine. I challenged a judge over whether or not he could do this.”

The high court left in place another part of the Superior Court decision, a ruling on Russo’s side that the agency also could not require Russo and his wife to permit its investigators to inspect conditions inside their home.

The first complaint about Russo was made in late October 2018, claiming he appeared to be under the influence inside a government building about two weeks earlier, while he was representing someone before Greene County Children and Youth Services.

The second and third reports followed in November 2018, alleging he had been “completely out of it” in public and that there was “domestic violence in the home,” according to a brief Russo filed last month.

Fayette County Children and Youth Services interviewed all five of Russo’s children while they were at school and were not able to confirm the allegations, according to the Superior Court opinion. The county agency then obtained a court order to send investigators into the Russo family home and require Russo to undergo “observable” urine tests.

“There has been no abuse, neglect or failure to to parent” alleged against Russo or his wife, Russo wrote last month. He said that Fayette County Children and Youth Services admitted “that no abuse or neglect had been alleged against (Russo), only that there were concerns of possible intoxication with a child present.”

Russo has argued the orders violated his constitutional rights and warned that allowing random drug testing of parents without probable cause “will inevitably lead to the forcible extraction of bodily fluids, the incarceration of parents for refusing to comply, or the exile of parents from their children.”

Fayette County Children and Youth Services’ lawyer, Anthony Dedola, said in a November filing that the complaints about Russo amounted to “credible reports from responsible sources.” The sources were not identified.

Dedola said county officials looking into child abuse claims should be able to require drug tests, as can be ordered during child custody disputes.

“The interest of the state in protecting children from parents who may be impaired by drugs to the point where they are incapable of caring for their children, is just as compelling, if not more so, than in custody cases,” Dedola wrote.

Dedola declined to be interviewed because of “privacy concerns on CYS matters generally,” he said Tuesday in an email to The Associated Press.

Two sides lock antlers in courtroom over Moose Lodge smoking ban

The status of a local Moose lodge in light of the international organization’s no-smoking policy is a burning question to be decided by a Washington County judge.

Local leaders of Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge No. 22 in Canton Township testified they’re willing to enclose an area for smokers – known as the front bar of the West Chestnut Street establishment – so the club complies with a smoking ban delegates to parent organization voted for at a 2019 convention in Las Vegas.

But a general governor and chief compliance officer of the international organization based in Illinois told the court only lodges with smoking areas already in existence when the ban was enacted last summer are “grandfathered.” Michael Luer, from the Chicago area, said he can’t allow lodges to stray from the fold of nearly 1,500 on the no-smoking issue because an even larger one looms later this year: admitting women as full members of the fraternal organization.

“This case is being watched by all of the Pennsylvania lodges and lodges across the nation,” Luer testified.

But officers of the Washington lodge say they’re ahead of that curve, because they already allow women to have full membership. Luer put the number of members at the Washington lodge at 800, but the fraternalists and their attorney said it’s closer to 1,500, counting women.

Luer said surveys from within the organization aiming to shore up declining membership pointed to smoking at clubs as a detriment among nonsmokers. A smoking ban that took effect Jan. 1 passed overwhelmingly in July 2019, he testified.

“Most states had already taken care of this with their own acts,” Luer noted, but not Pennsylvania, which has exceptions for fraternal and veterans’ organizations.

Some Moose lodges were largely smoke-free before the ban was voted upon because they had already built smoking rooms with separate heating and ventilation systems, and the parent organization “was not going to ask those who put in smoking rooms to rip those out,” Luer said under questioning by the organization’s attorney John W. Zotter.

Members and their guests can go outside the lodge to smoke, but erecting a shelter isn’t feasible, according to an officer of the local club who said, “We’re kind of land-locked.”

The struggle between the parent organization, which has revoked the charter of the Washington Club and is seeking an injunction to take control of the property at 2021 West Chestnut St., could be decided by late next week, President Judge Katherine B. Emery said after listening to testimony for several hours Thursday.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Zotter said. “They have a building that says Moose on it. They have a liquor license that says Moose on it.”

The local lodge continues to operate, having hosted fundraisers last week for the Canton Township Volunteer Fire Department and a cancer patient.

Luer said he had not been inside the Washington Moose lodge, but when trustee Brian Eckert said the general governor was denied entrance to the local club, a ripple of laughter went through the more than a dozen members who turned out to show support for Lodge No. 22.

The issue of liability in case of an accident related to liquor sale is a significant one, and attorney Brant Miller, who is from McDonald but practices in Pittsburgh, alluded to state police being called as tempers rose over the attempted closure last month.

“We asked state troopers to issue trespassing citations, but they couldn’t because Moose International was not on the title” to the property, replied Luer, who said he denied Lodge No. 22 a “dispensation” to enclose a bar as a smoking area … We would never allow for a smoking bar.” About 100 dispensations have been granted for smoking rooms, he said.

The name of Stan Adams, a territory manager for Moose clubs the Pittsburgh area, came up repeatedly during Thursday’s hearing as someone who dealt directly with Lodge No. 22 leaders during the dispute, but Emery noted neither side subpoenaed him.

Melvin Hatfield of Washington, past governor of the local Moose lodge, said he voted against the smoking ban adopted at the convention, but left Las Vegas with the impression that Lodge No. 22 would be able to alter its floor plan to enclose one bar as a smoking area, leaving two bars, part of the first floor and the entire second floor for nonsmokers like himself. He spoke of $1 million in grant money through the international club would be available to aid in remodeling on a first-come, first-served basis.

Roger L. Fisher of Hathaway Road, who serves a governor of Lodge No. 22, estimated the cost of glass doors to enclose the bar at between $3,500 and $4,500 with members’ donated labor.

“If everybody got together on a weekend, we could do it in a weekend,” he said. Fisher said he was aware of the international organization giving $10,000 to the local club several years ago, but Eckert testified, “I’ve never seen them give a nickel to us.”

Eckert said the club members voted 229 in favor of allowing smoking with 49 against. He foresees lodge members forsaking the international organization to become an independent club, and said they should have been afforded due process before the Moose parent organization pulled their charter and expelled members.

“This thing has spiraled out of control very quickly,” Miller told the judge.

The Washington Moose club was founded in 1907, and in 1988, it moved to its current location.