American Airlines – Commissioners Talk State of the County
Centre County commissioners, pictured from left, Mark Higgins, Michael Pipe and Steven Dershem, discuss the state of the county during an annual CBICC event on Tuesday, Sept. 14 at the Rolling Rails Lodge in Port Matilda. Photo by Vincent Corso | The Gazette
On a warm September day, the crowd for the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County’s annual State of the County Luncheon was glad to gather together outside to hear an update from the county commissioners. It helped that the event was held in a covered pavilion at the Rolling Rails Lodge in Port Matilda, after the event was held virtually last year.
“We all know the last year has been a challenge for a couple of reasons,” moderator Betsy Dupuis, from Babst Calland, said before leading the commissioners to discuss a series of topics related to county government on Tuesday afternoon. A summary of the commissioners’ responses follows.
SOLAR ARRAY AT CENTRE COUNTY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
Board Chair Michael Pipe said the solar array was years in the making.
“Here in Centre County, we are always looking for opportunities to utilize renewable energy and we appreciate that is the direction that we are moving in,” Pipe said.
Commissioner Mark Higgins said that for obvious reasons, the correctional facility has to run 24 hours a day every day of the year, and because of that usage rate, the solar panels have helped the county save $100,000 annually, which comes out to about one-third of the electric bill.
“It also improves security at the facility, because we have multiple power sources, especially during the day,” said Higgins.
Dershem admitted that he was not a proponent of the solar array to begin with, but “I like to be proven wrong and I like that the taxpayers are the beneficiaries of that success. It does appear, at this point, that this is going to be not only an energy savings, but a money savings for Centre County government.”
Dershem said they are working to get more people in the county involved with solar energy. Pipe and Higgins both highlighted an initiative that would give incentives to homeowners and businesses to invest in solar.
The recent renovation work completed at the 200-year-old courthouse has “been an amazing journey,” Dershem said.
“It is pretty much the keystone and center of the downtown Bellefonte community, so what we do with the courthouse has to make sense for what we do, but also for the community,” he said.
The work has produced energy savings and made the building more sustainable and accessible. He added, “It makes the building fit more into the Bellefonte community.”
Higgins said the addition of a fire suppression system in the historic building was a huge undertaking and will help to prevent any catastrophes.
The recently vacated Centre Crest building in Bellefonte potentially offers the “largest opportunity for the county to re-think how we provide services and how we structure our operations,” Pipe said
The county has brought on an architect to look at ways the building, which is owned by the county, could be utilized.
“We are recognizing that with the Willowbank Building, that as we are growing as county, we need a little bit more space for our staff,” Pipe said.
“The county keeps growing. We keep having to add departments due to the various underfunded and unfunded state mandates. We have additional staff just to handle the growth, and the Willowbank Building, we have outgrown that for a while,” said Higgins. He said the initial input from the architects show that the old patient rooms can be repurposed into offices.
Dershem added, “The building that has literally served the whole Centre County landscape for generations” provides an opportunity for the county government, as well as nonprofits and other municipalities, to rent space from the county.
Higgins highlighted a program that recently supplied partial funding for five affordable housing projects in State College and one in Philipsburg with Habitat For Humanity and State College Land Trust.
Pipe said the term “sustainable housing” is going to continue to be a topic of conversation in the county.
“Workforce housing and affordable housing have a connotation,” Pipe said. “But sustainable housing captures everything. If you need housing, you want to have housing, it needs to be sustainable.”
COVID RELIEF PROGRAMS
The type of help the county received this year is “tremendously different” from the funding it received last year, because the money from the 2020 CARES ACT had to be used by the end of that year, Pipe said.
Most of that money went out to the business community, the hospital and provided help providing PPEs.
The $31 million dollars the county received from the American Rescue Act this year does not have to be used until 2024.
“So we have a lot more runway and leeway. So, we are taking our time and being mindful of short-term expenditure, medium- and long-term expenditures,” said Pipe.
Higgins highlighted that so far this year the county has awarded $720,000 in grants to all 204 businesses in Centre County. The average grant has been just over $11,000. He said there is still funding available to help businesses impacted by the pandemic.
While some businesses did not make it through the pandemic, with the help from the county and federal government, “we are better off than most counties,” Higgins said.
Talking to members of the chamber, Dershem said, “Imagine a Centre County without a lot of you in it, a lot of small businesses. Just imagine the texture of downtown State College, Bellefonte, Philipsburg … anywhere … if those folks weren’t there. Just imagine what could have happened by starving businesses out for a year and half. I think one of the things we realized we could do was make an impact on that.”
ADDITIONAL FLIGHTS OUT OF STATE COLLEGE
One of the most recent initiatives the county is working on is a plan to incentivize American Airlines to add 12 flights a week out of State College to Charlotte, North Carolina.
“That would greatly allow for increased tourism, economic development and for folks here who would want to leave town,” said Pipe.
The commissioners are setting aside $250,000 of the American Rescue Funds for the initiative, and they are asking local municipalities to pitch in as well.
“Charlotte Airport is the eleventh busiest in United States,” Higgins said. “They have about 50 million passengers during an average year. So this would be a significant addition to our airport, to our transportation and will hopefully allow us to attract a company or two from outside the area.”
“Every time someone wants to come to Centre County to relocate a significant sized business, they always look at what our transportation network is,” Dershem said. “It makes sense to try to promote this. It is a pledge. If it doesn’t happen, we take our $250,000 and put it somewhere else.”
COVID TESTING CENTER
The COVID testing center has moved locations often but has remained a resource for people in the area throughout the pandemic.
“If somebody needs fast, free testing … it is available. You don’t have to make an appointment. We think that is a huge benefit,” Dershem said. Pipe added that the testing center is a resource for all those that live and work in Centre County.
The county has used federal money to not only support the clinic but also to provide $100,000 to Centre Volunteers and Medicine and $400,000 to Mount Nittany Health for their vaccination efforts.
EMERGENCY RENTAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
The county received more than $13 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help people who could not pay rent due to impacts of the pandemic. The program not only helped those people, but it also helped landlords and utility companies, Higgins said.
“We have assisted 414 unique households, but we have sent all of the money directly to 222 unique landlords or property management companies, and 12 unique utility companies,” Higgins said.
So far, the program has provided just under $2.4 million, so funding is still available.
Pipe said after receiving funding of this size, the adult services department had to expand significantly to get the money out to the people that need it.
“It was $13 million for an office of two or three to manage. So, one of the things we recognized is that we needed more folks,” Pipe said. “So, we recruited a few, but we needed even more folks. So, we are now at about 10 or 12 positions that are available to help churn through these applications.”
Understanding that there is a connectivity issue for people in some parts of the county, Dershem said, “Obviously the county is not going to get into the broadband business, but we can facilitate conversation with communities, which provides, with businesses, with municipalities, to provide maybe some ideas, some creativity. That is one of the American Rescue Plans initiatives is to spend some money on broadband.”
The planning department, Higgins said, is working to have a rural broadband consultant to help the county find the best approach to assist communities that need better connectivity.
Just before the pandemic the county allowed a service provider to use two county 911 towers to provide service to the Penns Valley area.
Higgins said this was an example of how the county could help the process and is something that other counties across the state have emulated.
“During the pandemic, everyone’s speed slowed down at one time or another when they were at home,” Pipe said. “We were so thankful that we had it, but for our residents and neighbors who didn’t it really was exasperating. … So, here is the big thing with the consultant. We want actual steps that we can take.”
This story appears in the Sept. 16-22 edition of the Centre County Gazette.
American Airlines – Commissioners Talk State of the County