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2017-08-25 / Community (County Spotlight)

CBICC collaborations help grow regional businesses’ influence well beyond county lines

Spotlight on Centre County

Driving through the Central Pennsylvania countryside can sometimes make you feel like you’re in the middle of a disconnected part of the country. There’s no easier way to disqualify that idea than to drive into the towns and cities and ask business owners how they continue to grow. Typically, because you can’t grow a business in a vacuum, you’ll hear about all of the partnerships and collaborations that got their business to where it is now. Soon you’ll realize that State College, Bellefonte and Philipsburg all are homes to businesses that ship to California, Canada and beyond.

The Chamber for Business & Industry of Centre County (CBICC) has tapped into that spirit of collaboration and continues to use it to help the region become a major player in the state and national economy. To find out what the plans are for the future at the CBICC, Pennsylvania Business Central spoke with Vern Squier, president and CEO of the chamber.

PBC: With the new construction in downtown State College trending toward student housing, how does this impact plans for downtown office space/additional uses?

Squier: The new construction is a market-based investment focused on the university in total, including students, graduate students, even faculty housing. Many of these new projects have benefits for borough residents and visitors to downtown State College as well, including new lodging, restaurant and shopping options and professional housing. The commercial/office space available in some of these buildings adds to the county’s inventory.

The CBICC recently had the opportunity to showcase space in one of the new downtown high rises to a company considering Centre County for relocation. It’s important to have available and appropriate facility options not only for recruitment purposes, but for growing/expanding local companies that also have need for additional space. To that end, the dialogue about what is needed from building/site inventory to best accommodate business growth/ economic development is ongoing. Additional office space may be needed as employment opportunities grow in the county.

PBC: Do you believe the current rent/housing prices in Centre County make it difficult for businesses – labor and service-oriented specifically – to attract employees?

Squier: Housing costs/overall cost of living can be factors in talent recruitment, no doubt. The market does, however, follow a supply and demand trajectory. We know there is a desire to have income appropriate/ affordable housing for young working professionals and families. That said, it is important to note that there are many factors that impact employee recruitment and housing choices: salary and benefits, commuting patterns, work life balance and community quality of life, to name a few.

One of the biggest workforce challenges facing businesses regardless of size or industry is finding employees with the proper skill sets. This is true locally, statewide and nationally. The CBICC’s Business and Industry Partnership has met with more than 50 local companies to date. The most common theme coming out of these discovery meetings is businesses’ inability to find qualified employees.

For some in the service industry, this means skilled technical workers specifically. But for many businesses, it means basic soft skills – understanding the importance of showing up for work on time; good verbal and written communication skills; the ability to pass a drug test; an understanding of a supervisory working environment; and general work ethic. Closing this skills gap and ensuring that businesses have access to a workforce that meets their needs is a priority for the CBICC.

CBICC worked with Invent Penn State and Morgan Advanced Materials to bring a new 30,000-square-foot building to Innovation Park that will house the materials company’s new Carbon Science Center of Excellence. 
Photo courtesy of CBICC CBICC worked with Invent Penn State and Morgan Advanced Materials to bring a new 30,000-square-foot building to Innovation Park that will house the materials company’s new Carbon Science Center of Excellence. Photo courtesy of CBICC PBC: The CBICC is working with the Blair County Chamber of Commerce on next year’s business Expo. Tell us more about this initiative.

Squier: The CBICC and the Blair County Chamber of Commerce partnered to hold a regional event a few years ago, so there is some precedence. Since then, many of our members have expressed a desire to again pursue a regional Expo. Both chambers felt the time was right to not only explore the concept of another regional event, but to re-imagine the possibilities such an event poses in terms of strengthening business-to-business and business- to-consumer connections across an expanded geographic market. We have agreed to hold the event next year in Blair County, returning to Centre County in 2019. Ours is a regional economy, so a regional Expo makes sense.

PBC: Last year you mentioned that the Memorandum of Agreement has piqued interest across the nation. Are other universities hoping to emulate the success of the partnership between CBICC and Penn State?

Squier: Yes. The CBICC/Penn State University economic development MOA is serving as a model for other university communities. As an example, when my counterpart at the Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan, Kansas – home to Kansas State University – learned of our partnership, he approached his university president about signing a similar agreement. That agreement has been signed and is enthusiastically supported by the university there. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, which covers Tuscaloosa (home to the University of Alabama), in retooling its multi-year strategic plan , referenced the CBICC one of four “Best in Class” chambers for benchmarking purposes in part due to the MOA with Penn State. That chamber is currently pursuing such an agreement with the leadership of the university.

Collaboration between university and home community holds tremendous promise for entrepreneurial and economic development. We are beginning to see the potential locally with the recent announcement that RJ Lee Group, Inc. selected Centre County for business expansion, and the decision by UK-based Morgan Advanced Materials to locate its first North American Carbon Science Center of Excellence at Innovation Park. Other communities recognize this potential and have been eager to emulate what is occurring here.

PBC: The region has been developing business incubators at a steady rate for the past few years. Has the demand for that kind of space been met yet? What is the next step towards meeting those entrepreneurs’ needs? Is there enough office space to meet the needs of those now looking to expand out from the programs?

Squier: State College was named the 10th Best U.S. City for Entrepreneurs to Live and Launch by Entrepreneur magazine. In part this is because of a robust ecosystem for business startups that extends to all reaches of the county. The recent addition of new co-working spaces in Bellefonte and Philipsburg, when fully utilized, will complement established, traditional incubators such as the TechCelerator at Innovation Park, and other early-phase accelerators like Happy Valley LaunchBox, part of the Invent Penn State initiative. The network here supports all types of entrepreneurs, which is essential. Not all new startups will become the next major employer; many will contribute to the local economy as smaller or sole- proprietor-based businesses made possible because of the Internet and modern technology.

Being a university community, there will always be demand for entrepreneurial assistance in some form. However, we do need to make sure we have a strong, partner-based support network for business across the economic development continuum. Established, growing companies – Centre County is fortunate to have many that fit this bill – have their own set of challenges and opportunities. These companies are providing good-paying jobs now, and many are positioned for even greater success. As we help new businesses get off the ground, we must also have a robust network for business retention/expansion assistance. This is necessary for economic stability and growth.

PBC: What other challenges and opportunities do you foresee for the Centre County business community?

Squier: I see tremendous opportunities for business growth across Centre County. Healthcare, service, hospitality and retail sectors remain strong, with new establishments opening their doors throughout the county. Mount Nittany Medical Center’s commitment to locate its administrative services division in Bellefonte is bringing new fuel to that community and overall county economy. The Bellefonte riverfront holds promise for additional business opportunities. The entrepreneurial spirit in Penns Valley and Milheim is increasing, and in general, entrepreneurial innovation continues to put Centre County on the map.

A number of advanced manufacturing/technology companies - Homeland Manufacturing Services and KCF Technologies, Inc. among them – are experiencing tremendous growth. Others, such as API Technologies, have committed to growing their manufacturing operations here.

Local sourcing is a priority for many businesses across industry sectors, reflecting a spirit of partnership and a desire for mutual success that is embraced by Centre County’s business community.

Centre County is also becoming magnetic for outside companies because of access to world-class university research and access to talent. Since the May 2015 signing of the CBICC/Penn State University MOA, along with the advent of Invent Penn State and the university’s focus on economic development, companies are taking notice of what the county has to offer. The announcement last year by UK-based Morgan Advanced Materials to locate its first North American Carbon Science Center of Excellence here was just the start. Most recently, the CBICC joined with Penn State in announcing another project – Pittsburgh-based RJ Lee Group’s selection of Centre County for business expansion. This company, a long-term research partner of the university, is now committed to developing new technology locally, which means new job creation. .

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