2 min read December 2022 — Invest: spoke with Fayette County Commissioner Scott Dunn about his take on industry growth, what makes the area special and what to expect from the county’s future. Dunn emphasized the importance of strengthening education, revitalizing old industries and advocating for rural populations.
What sets Fayette County apart from other areas?
Fayette County has a landscape of mountains and rivers so any outdoor recreation that you want to do, you can do here, whether that’s rafting, paddleboarding, hunting, fishing, walking, hiking, biking, golfing, or skiing; we have that in abundance. We also have great cultural and historical places like Falling Water and Kentuck Knob, houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. George Washington’s first battle was in Fayette County in 1755 at the start of the French and Indian War. Everything ties together and we have a lot of tourism, but it also makes Fayette County a great place to live. At the same time, we have areas of commerce, and a great highway system that can lead anywhere in the country. We have a point from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and if you draw a 500-mile circle, there are 140 million people that live within that 500 miles. That’s a very important selling point to a prospective business that is trying to cut down on transportation costs.
What are the main industries in Fayette County?
Our economy is evolving. You can’t talk about the industrial revolution in the 1800s without talking about Fayette County. Go back 40 or 50 years, we were the coal and steel capital. Those industries are gone. We’ve had a tough time replacing those and there’s no way of getting around that. We still have a manufacturing and agricultural base, but tourism is one of our main economic drivers. The industry that is really starting to make inroads in Fayette County is the healthcare industry, especially since WVU medicine in Morgantown bought the Uniontown hospital. They are expanding constantly and need 120 nurses right now. Healthcare is really becoming a major industry here and those are good-paying jobs.
What are you doing to strengthen and retain your workforce?
We have to boost our workforce, that’s part of the overall plan. We recognize that there’s a lot of money right now and a lot of effort going into our workforce investment boards to try to boost training. We have grants and scholarships for veterans to get free training, through either truck driving or welding. We have a company in Brownsville, which is one of the two largest barge manufacturers in the United States, Heartland Fabrication, that offers training programs to be a welder. I’m also working on boosting post-secondary education. That was something that I recognized as a father, not necessarily as a politician. Before I became commissioner, I realized, “I’m going to send my kids away to go to college.” So our college-bound kids, unless they go to Penn State Fayette, which is a great institution, they’re leaving Fayette County. A lot of those kids don’t come back, or they get a job somewhere else, or they start experiencing life elsewhere. There’s all this talent that leaves Fayette County. We’re about to announce that another institute of higher education will be coming to Fayette County. This is something that we have been trying to do. We were able to finalize a deal, and it’s a four-year university, it’s not a community college. It’ll be online at first, but eventually, they will have a physical presence in Fayette County. There is a direct correlation between poverty and your educational attainment. We have to get our population into these programs – there’s going to be a concerted effort to get into our schools and have in-school programs and after-school programs. One of those ideas is an age 18-26 mentoring program. Public assistance is removed at age 18, that band-aid gets ripped off and now you’re out on your own.
What infrastructure challenges are you facing and how are you addressing them?
We’re still working on our infrastructure. We have applied for several grants through our partners in Washington. One successfully, one not successfully. It’s great to have all of this government money, but it’s so hard to unlock. I’m sure Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have whole departments full of grant writers, but a rural area like Fayette County has two, and we kind of share them with our local municipalities who have zero. So I tried to emphasize to Senator Casey that $1 million in Fayette County is going to have a bigger impact than $1 million in Pittsburgh, and we are having problems unlocking that money. He vowed to go back to D.C. with those criticisms and try to fix it. We’re leaving no stone unturned and trying to get that money.
We’re using $2 million of ARPA to fund a $13 million project in North Union Township for sewage. That’s how we are leveraging our ARPA money to make it go as far as it possibly can. When you think about rural projects, they’re more difficult to fund because you don’t have the users on a line. If I’m putting in five miles of water line in the mountains, I may be only hitting 200 customers, compared to if I’m putting that same amount in the city, I’m hitting thousands of customers. We’re asking for that help not only in water and sewer, but we will be asking for that in broadband. We consider broadband a critical infrastructure as well and our goal is fiber to every home in Fayette County. We have one project, it’s about 30 homes in Wharton Township for broadband and will cost $1.4 million. There’s no broadband company that’s going to come in and spend $1.4 million to get 30 customers, it’s just not going to happen. So you have to have the government help these very rural areas.
What industries are you looking to develop?
Our main challenges really haven’t changed. It’s infrastructure and business development, we’re still laser-focused on that. We have a very interesting potential for increased investment in our dairy industry in Fayette County. We’re looking forward to seeing how we can increase the training and post-secondary education here in Fayette County to increase that workforce. We have been working on the concept of using microgrids in our natural gas industry to be a driver here as well. We are reaching out to industries that are energy-dependent – one of those being our data centers. With these heavy manufacturers that need constant reliable electricity, we can do that as we have major natural gas transmission lines through Fayette County. So between those two, we can actually use that as an installer to create electricity here or generate it to turn electric power into jobs here in Fayette County. That’s one of the exciting things that we see in the future.
What are your goals for the next few years?
We have a lot on our plate, and I think we’re off to a great start. Between improving education and attacking poverty locally, the business development infrastructure and boosting our tourism industry, there’s a lot going on here, which makes the economy even more livable. In three to five years, I want to see a major industry settle in Fayette County. I want our healthcare industry to continue, build our agriculture industry and tourism assets to continue to drive residents and visitors to Fayette County. Our housing stock has gotten older so as we start to bring these people in, we’re going to need housing as well. It’s going to be another industry that’s going to start having a boom here as well.
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