Carbon County business leaders gathered Tuesday morning to testify about the challenges they face when looking toward the future; as well as discuss workforce development, economic issues and job creation possibilities in the county and across the state.
During the three-and-a-half hour hearing, hosted by the House of Representatives Majority Policy Committee, four panel discussions were held in the areas of economic development, the region's workforce and career training needs, tourism, and diverse energy sources.
The Majority Policy Committee is comprised of state Reps. David Reed, chairman; Doyle Heffley; Jerry Knowles; Tarah Toohill; Kurt Masser; and Michael Tobash.
Heffley explained that the purpose of the hearings, which are being held throughout the state, is to help the committee learn what the issues are and what the state can do to help.
"This gives us a good blueprint so we can start to develop policies and legislative agenda to promote the businesses that are here and help them prosper," he said.
Dawn Ferrante, director of the Carbon County Office of Economic Development and chairperson of the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce, explained that Carbon County is a unique place, in that it has everything from tourism to manufacturing to energy resources; but it has some major challenges as well, including the lack of a properly trained workforce, as well as a high unemployment rate.
She noted that there is a great opportunity to promote a strong workforce development program in the county through the Carbon Career & Technical Institute in Jim Thorpe, but many don't take advantage of the programs offered.
Ferrante asked the committee how can they promote people getting trained; what can be done to change and create business-friendly regulatory policies; and funding.
"Our future is dependent on finding ideas and innovative ways to remove obstacles of development while still maintaining public safety," she told the committee.
Masser asked Ferrante about her thoughts on regulations.
She responded that there is a lack of communication and cooperation between the agencies and because of this the process for businesses become expensive.
Tobash agreed with Ferrante, saying he believes businesses are overregulated. He then asked about the unemployment rate in Carbon County.
Ferrante said that the perception is that the jobs available here, which are blue collar, are "dirty jobs" so people don't want to do them; when in fact they are highly skilled jobs that need training.
"Some of these entry level jobs begin at $30, $40, or $50,000 a year, but how do we get people to say 'I want to be trained,'" she said.
Ferrante added that she was very proud of the manufacturing base in Carbon County.
Following Ferrante's testimony, a number of business leaders testified on their feelings for growth in Carbon County; as well as what government could do for businesses.
Business leaders who testified included Donald W. Snyder, president of Lehigh Carbon Community College and former state representative; Ronald Blisard, director of administrative services at KME Fire Apparatus in Nesquehoning, and chairman of the Pocono Counties Workforce Investment Board; Joseph J. Sebelin, executive director of the Pocono Counties Investment Area; Cynthia Zimmerman, site supervisor of Carbon County Adult Education Center; and Al Donadi, cooperative education coordinator for the Carbon County Adult Education Center.
Also testifying were Jerry McAward, president of Jim Thorpe River Adventures and Northeast PA Kayak School; Paul Fogal, vice president of Pocono Whitewater; Barbara Green, owner and president of Blue Mountain Ski Area; John F. Curtis III, founder and CEO of Green Energy Capital Partners; Steve Ross, president and CEO of Great American Pellets; and Richard "Rusty" Taylor, president and CEO of Lehigh Anthracite.
Testimonies included suggestions on what the state could do to help train a stronger workforce and lower the unemployment rate; questions on how to attract business to the area; stories on successful business models; frustrations with state agencies when trying to bring development into the communities; projects that, if completed, would help grow tourism and the local economy; and using both natural resources, as well as alternative energy resources to meet the energy needs of the region.
Following the testimony, Reed thanked everyone for attending the event and said the information provided will help the state work toward solving a number of the issues.
He pointed out that many of the testimonies in Carbon were similar to those in other regions, where unemployment, infrastructure, access to finances, workforce development and regulations were all highlighted.
The committee will continue to host hearings in several regions before taking its findings back to the state.