County sees strong economic growth in latest reports

Posted February 28, 2014

 Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

The current state of the economy of Washington County could be summed up with two words: strong growth.

That was the message delivered Thursday by Washington County commissioners during their annual “state of the economy” address held before more than 300 regional business leaders at the Hilton Garden Inn in Southpointe.

The event, sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, also produced the numbers – the county counted 105 economic development projects that accounted for more than $1.1 billion in capital investment in 2013 – to quantify some bragging rights.

“Washington County continues to lead the greater Pittsburgh region in terms of economic development projects, energy production and job creation,” said commission Chairman Larry Maggi, who shared the dais with commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan Shober.

According to Maggi, the county’s business community last year announced $1,100,521,000 in new capital investment that will account for an additional 2,080 jobs here.

That job growth was across the board, Maggi added, noting that the investments and jobs were created by numerous sectors of the local economy, including energy, technology, commercial/industrial, hospitality and manufacturing.

But energy continues to be a prime driver where the county’s economic growth is concerned.

Maggi noted that the county is ranked first in the greater Pittsburgh region in both natural gas wells drilled and drilling permits issued in 2013.

With 971 Marcellus Shale wells drilled between 2005 and 2013, the county leads not only the region, but also the state, and “truly earns us the designation as Energy Capital of the East,” he said.

The county is now home to six of the top energy companies in the region, including Consol Energy, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, Range Resources, MarkWest, Rockwater Energy Solutions and the Guttman Group. The county also added another publicly held company when Southpointe-based Rice Energy held its initial public offering two weeks ago.

Maggi emphasized that commissioners weren’t taking credit for the substantial capital investment from the private sector and the jobs it created.

“I hate it when (politicians) sit here and say, ‘we created jobs,’” Maggi said. “Private industry creates jobs.”

But Irey Vaughan noted the county also continues to benefit from an influx of funding to help its own economic development projects, as well as numerous community projects, through Local Share Account funds produced by revenue from The Meadows Racetrack & Casino.

“Since 2008, the LSA has invested in over $58.5 million in new economic, community and industrial development projects,” she said, noting that with that amount, another $154.7 million has been leveraged from federal, state and local money for a total of $213.3 million in impact.

In January, the county’s LSA committee approved projects for another $6.2 million in local share funds, leveraging $33 million in public/private job creation projects.

The investments include funding for business parks such as Southpointe II, Starpointe, the expansion of the county airport and other workforce development and job creation projects.

Shober added that the county’s strong tourism industry continues to be a major economic driver alongside traditional business and industry.

According to Shober, the local tourism industry supports 5,840 jobs and generates more than $149 million in federal and state tax revenue.

He cited a recent report from the state Department of Community and Economic Development that found that Washington County drew the second-largest share of visitor spending in the southwestern region.

DCED also found that in 2012 direct visitor spending dollars in Washington County was $740.7 million, up from $669.2 million in 2011, a nearly 11 percent increase.

Shober added that the two recent figures are more than double the $333 million in direct visitor dollars collected in 2006, before the advent of The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, Tanger Outlets and the influx of workers related to the natural gas boom.

Those factors have contributed to a hotel construction boom in the county, he added, noting there is now a total of 2,151 rooms on the market, with two more Holiday Inn Express units to open this year, and the new Hyatt Place property at The Meadows expected to open in 2015.

“That’s a 25 percent increase in hotel room supply slated to satisfy the growing lodging needs of the leisure and corporate traveler, while adding hundreds of good paying jobs to the local economy,” Shober said.

The commissioner’s comments on the economy were bolstered Thursday by preliminary results from a study on the economic impacts of the natural gas industry conducted by Dr. Yongsheng Wang, associate professor of economics at Washington & Jefferson College.

Wang, who studied a number of trends in the 10-year period between 2004 and 2013, noted that during the period, the county added 16,000 jobs, saw income from rents and royalties increase by 400 percent, while hotel tax revenue tripled from around $500,000 to $1.5 million.

He said his study will continue to provide additional insights on the impact.

In an update of developments related to Act 13, parts of which were found by the state Supreme Court to be unconstitutional at the end of last year, Joy Ruff, municipal planner for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said it remains to be seen whether the impact fee, which produced $24 million for the county and all of its municipalities over the last two years would be continued.

“The loss to Washington County would be significant to all municipalities,” she said.

Copyright 2014 Observer Publishing Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed