Despite the coronavirus pandemic, economic development remains strong in Blair County as local businesses continue to bounce back and move forward.
That was the message Friday during the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. annual meeting at the Blair County Convention Center.
Friday marked the first time in three years the organization held the event.
In the past three years, ABCD Corp. directly supported and funded 146 business expansion projects resulting in a total capital investment of more than $140 million. Of that total, ABCD program funding accounted for more than $32 million. Those projects added 245 new jobs with more than 860 retained, said president/CEO Stephen McKnight.
Among those projects was the DelGrosso Foods expansion, which included a building acquisition and major production expansion. That $70 million project represented the largest single capital investment and manufacturing expansion ever in Blair County, McKnight said.
Another major redevelopment was the former 60-acre WATCO site in Hollidaysburg, now home to Curry Rail Services.
“That project brought back to life an otherwise vacant industrial site and greatly improved the visual appeal of the area in the process. In total, the projects represented a wide range of industry sectors to include health care, transportation, warehousing, hospitality and retail,” McKnight said.
ABCD Corp. is seeing significant strategic and financial commitments.
“This is the busiest I have ever seen our organization and that is good news. We feel confident Blair County businesses are positioned to get around some well-placed speed bumps,” Chairman of the Board Ron McConnell said.
Demand for labor has also remained strong. That was particularly important when Appvion, citing the pandemic itself, ceased operations permanently in 2021. That sudden closure dislocated more than 290 highly skilled workers. Fortunately, high skill was in demand, allowing many of those workers to land new opportunities quickly within the regional economy, McKnight said.
As for the empty Appvion plant, efforts to repurpose the site are ongoing, he said.
“We are continuing to work with the current ownership group, the Roaring Spring Borough, and our state and federal officials to chart a pathway forward for the site,” McKnight said.
He said that since March 2020, the vast majority of local businesses are moving forward.
“They are doing what they need to not only keep the lights on, but in many cases finding new ways to do things even better. It reaffirmed what we already knew about our community — about our businesses, our economy and the people who live here. And that is we are resilient. We are determined. We are resourceful,” McKnight said.
Last year, ABCD partnered with the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission to sponsor a study to help quantify the emerging hybrid workforce.
“That study concluded that in the next three years, the population of remote workers in our region will exceed 12,000 people, primarily from Virginia, Maryland and the Pittsburgh area. It also cited a Harris poll showing that 38 percent of respondents currently living in urban areas are likely to move toward more rural towns and mountain settings. That study affirmed that the steps we were taking long before 2020 were the right steps to take, and we need to keep doing them,” McKnight said.
He said linking all parts of Blair County with better broadband service remains a priority.
“We need to better connect all areas of the county and fill the gaps that hinder home-based business, schooling and our overall competitiveness,” McKnight said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.
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