Like many elected officials in the region, Lawrence County Commissioner Dan Vogler saw a potential economic boost from the under-construction ethane cracker plant in Beaver County.
He expected that development to move north, rather than southeast toward Pittsburgh, with what he considered to be good reason.
“If you head toward Pittsburgh, real estate gets more expensive,” he said.
The Potter Township-based plant, which will process ethane natural gas into plastics, was cast in the national spotlight Tuesday when President Donald Trump stopped by for a look at the region’s industrial progress. When the plant begins operations, sometime in the early 2020s, it will employ about 600 permanent employees.
Vogler said the area is already feeling an effect from the plant, with some of the 5,000 to 6,000 construction workers and tradesmen drawn from a workforce of Lawrence County residents.
“There has already been an economic impact,” he said. “There are people who are driving down Interstate 376 and earning a paycheck every day.”
But business leaders and elected officials of Mercer and Lawrence counties are anticipating development from the plant’s permanent operations.
Between the lower property costs and the region’s location along I-376, which runs directly past the cracker plant, Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell said north is the natural direction for development with businesses that will use plastic manufactured at the plant.
“We would hope that we would benefit from the residuals,” he said. “We see the potential that folks could utilize the natural conditions in Mercer County.”
Tim McGonigle, McConnell’s fellow Mercer County commissioner, said the highway system works in Mercer County’s favor, with interstates 80 and 79 running through the county, along with I-376.
“It’s about putting the businesses in the area so they’re close to the supply chain,” he said.
Both McConnell and McGonigle said the commissioners and county development agencies are focused on being prepared with shovel-ready sites and removal of regulatory obstacles for companies to process the cracker plant’s products.
However, McGonigle said officials need to be mindful of the economic impacts from the factories and from adding about a million tons of plastic produced at the cracker plant into the trash stream each year. The cost of recycling plastics increased from 2018 to 2019, which forced some local governments, including Mercer County, to discontinue plastic recycling programs.
“We need to be responsible about it,” he said. “It doesn’t go away when we’re done using it.”
McGonigle said the region’s history offered a lesson on industrial environmental impacts.
“Just like in the old days, when we made steel and we didn’t think about that until all the damage was done,” he said.
The Shenango Valley could have an opportunity to attract families. Sherris Moreira, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the low cost of property applies to housing as well as manufacturing complexes.
While Moreira said she hopes the plant will spur business development in Mercer County, attracting new residents from among the factory’s permanent employees would yield a more immediate economic impact. The western terminus of I-376 is in Shenango Township, about a half hour from the cracker plant site.
“If we can get people to drive 30 minutes, that would be a quick win,” she said.
Moreira said the cracker plant’s impacts will be an important topic in October at the Rising Rust Belt Summit, sponsored jointly by the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The summit, to be held Oct. 6 and 7 at the Park Inn in Shenango Township, is intended to promote development in the region, which is still feeling the impact from the collapse of big steel about 40 years ago.
Moreira said the chambers need to take a holistic approach to economic development with the cracker plant.
“It’s not just business,” she said. “It’s people. We have to focus on the whole package.”