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Western Pennsylvania finds ‘right direction’

The stubbornly sluggish economy has not stopped Western Pennsylvania’s ability to attract businesses and jobs in the past year or so, economic development experts say.

For instance, the number of private-sector jobs in the seven-county region in September was about 9,000 ahead of the same month last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The region’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate is significantly lower than the nation’s 9.6 percent rate.

By another count, the region through October has attracted 33 new businesses compared to 30 that came into the region for full-year 2009, according to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

“The economy, like our business wins, is slightly improved and moving in the right direction,” Dennis Yablonsky, the conference’s chief executive, said Tuesday. “But there’s a lot of caution out there in terms of the long-term prognosis.”

In this murky-but-moderating economic climate, the Allegheny Conference held its annual meeting last night in the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, Downtown.

The Allegheny Conference, headed by the region’s corporate and business leaders, is the holding company for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the group charged with marketing the region and aiding in business retention and relocation, and two other economic development organizations — the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The chairman of the conference is U.S. Steel Corp. CEO John Surma.

“Pittsburgh has held up pretty well, relative to other markets,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute, a public policy think tank based in Castle Shannon.

Haulk said the Allegheny Conference was doing a credible job attracting businesses and jobs to the region, under the economic circumstances.

“I wouldn’t be too hard on them just because they haven’t been able to make a bunch of announcements,” said Haulk, an economist. “It’s a devilish time to be trying to grab companies and create local jobs. It’s a tough time for every market right now.”

Recent announcements of new companies coming here included California-based Smith Micro Software Inc.’s selection of the Pittsburgh area in September to locate a new research and development center. The company is going to build a $7 million facility in Moon or Cranberry that will add 230 jobs.

Another was Allied Technology Inc.’s recent to put an oil and gas equipment-making plant in South Huntingdon that will bring more than 100 jobs to Westmoreland County.

The Allied Technology announcement is more typical of the kind of business attractions and expansions that the region is landing nowadays and that development officials expect to come here in the future, said Yablonsky, a former corporate CEO and head of the state Department of Community and Economic Development for more than five years.

The development of energy sources is the region’s top priority in the coming year, he said.

“We’re suggesting our economy can be powered through energy,” including Marcellus shale exploration and production, said Yablonsky. He generally advocates a “portfolio approach” of renewable energy, conservation and a combination of natural gas, coal and nuclear power.

“Over time, that will strengthen our economy,” Haulk said. He cited the drilling rigs that will be built and installed, as well as the pipelines that will need to be fabricated and laid.

Another priority is Pennsylvania’s business environment, Yablonsky said. That especially includes tax reforms in the wake of Republicans gaining control of the governorship and both houses of the state Legislature.

Corporate and economic development officials are pressing Harrisburg to lower the corporate net income tax to 6.99 percent from 9.99 percent, the highest in the nation; to phase out the complex and punitive capital stock and franchise tax; and to lift the cap on net operating losses a company may apply to future tax liabilities.

Haulk said it’s a positive sign for the region that the conference is pushing against such “anti-growth policies.”


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