CLEARFIELD – Yesterday, Eric Bridges, executive director of the North Central Regional Planning & Development Commission, presented his annual update to the Clearfield County Commissioners.
North Central is the designated Local Development District for the counties of Clearfield, Cameron, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter. Further, North Central facilitates industrial site location, economic growth, workforce quality and business opportunities within the six-county region.
North Central, Bridges said, works collaboratively with a myriad of communities, businesses, industries and workforce partners. In turn he said this allows North Central to streamline regional, state and federal funding and services, including economic development and transportation planning.
According to him, North Central has been challenged with reductions to its funding and resources. In the past three years, he said North Central has experienced anywhere from a 35 percent to a 40 percent reduction in resources that it utilizes to provide its services.
Bridges said although North Central has been operating under difficult circumstances, it’s been required to be more efficient, more streamlined and more creative with the utilization of its resources. “I tell my staff and I tell my board, ‘there’s not much that we can do to directly influence or impact our revenues and funding available to the public,’” he said, “But we can have a positive attitude about how we utilize our resources.”
Two years ago, Bridges said Pennsylvania critically evaluated its state agencies and identified areas in which it could streamline, reduce and consolidate funding resources. One significant change, he said, occurred within the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), which had several business assistance organizations and entities, such as North Central, deriving revenues and resources from Pennsylvania taxpayers to provide services.
Although these business-related organizations had proven successful, Pennsylvania consolidated them into one due to economic concerns. Their consolidation formed the new Pennsylvania program known as the Partnership for Regional Economic Performance (PREP), said Bridges.
As a result of the partnership, he said local economic development districts and small business development centers have been working collaboratively to plan business-related services. Although North Central has operated under this partnership for 2.5 years, he said they have cooperated together like this for decades.
Bridges said the partnership has been impactful in Clearfield County in the past fiscal year. He said it’s engaged 135 new business clients, such as small businesses, manufacturers, employers, etc.; provided approximately 1,000-plus consulting hours with small business owners, manufacturers and chief executive officers; increased total sales by $12.3 million as a result of its assistance by aggregate service providers; created or sustained more than 115 jobs; and supported business efforts with just under $900,000 in public financing, which leveraged almost $1.5 million in private investments.
Additionally, Bridges said North Central plays a role in community development and transportation. He said it’s the state-designated Rural Planning Organization (RPO) for the six-county region. Bridges said North Central serves as the local liaison and interface “for all things transportation” and is extensively involved with public transportation as related to the Area Transportation Authority (ATA) and DuFast Transit.
As part of its transportation role, he said North Central manages and facilitates dialogues between the public transit organizations. He appreciated the Clearfield County Commissioners’ concerns so far as the services provided by the ATA, saying North Central, as the RPO, would like to be active in future discussions between the county and the ATA.
On the heels of the recent flood in Sandy Township and DuBois City, Bridges said local officials approached North Central, as they were required to document damage to state and federal emergency management agencies. He said they lacked a map or a GIS representation of the locations of the damage to demonstrate their need for aide.
As a result, North Central went out with local emergency management officials and documented the damage with them. He said they developed an impressive footprint that in short-term assisted with the damage assessment of the flood. However, more importantly, he said it will help with long-term decisions to help prevent a similar event.
From a community standpoint, Bridges said North Central has coordinated a Greenways initiative with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). About three years ago, he said Clearfield County collaborated with the other five counties to develop a Regional Greenways Plan. Since then, Bridges said they have derived resources from the state to help implement community projects.
Last year, he said Clearfield County received direct investment for three projects through the Greenways Fund. He said $24,000 was awarded for the Curwensville Lake dog park; $6,700 for the DuBois Redevelopment Group’s Beaver Meadow signage project; and $25,000 for the Beaver Meadow Walkway trail head. He said there have been four, separate rounds of funding, and they still have $150,000 to spend with six projects currently under committee review. However, he said they expect to open up another grant round in six months or so.
Bridges said North Central has significant involvement with workforce development in the region. He said the North Central Regional Planning Board serves in a unique capacity, as it not only administers workforce-related program funding, but also provides Title I services to adults, dislocated workers, in- and out-of-school youth and individuals who are in the Employment Advancement Retention Network (EARN) population.
EARN individuals, Bridges said, are connected to the state welfare system. As they enter the welfare system, they must connect to the workforce development system to continue to receive welfare benefits. Upon referral from the county assistance office, Bridges said North Central will provide access to training and schooling to get these individuals actively engaged in finding employment.
He said their most important task is to make sure individuals who pass through the workforce development program come out with jobs. As an aggregate for the region last year, he said 335 individuals funneled into the system, and of those, 290 individuals found full-time jobs with the average wage being just under $13 per hour.
Bridges said North Central has maintained a strong and positive relationship with the Clearfield County Commissioners. He said Commissioner Mark B. McCracken represents the county on the board and holds North Central accountable to the needs and expectations of the commissioners. Bridges told the commissioners he is available to answer any additional questions that the county might have, and looks forward to an enduring and sustaining working relationship with them.