Mercer County’s 2020 Census results are in, and the picture isn’t rosy. In fact, local business people called the continuing population loss here a wake-up call and call-to-action.
“If we don’t change the way we’re doing things, we’ll be a county of under 100,000 10 years from now and wonder how we got there,’’ Rod Wilt, Penn-Northwest Development Corp.’s executive director, told The Herald Friday. “If this isn’t a call to action I don’t know what is.’’
Local population loss has accelerated from 2010. In 2020, Mercer County reported 109,424 residents – down 7,214, or 6.2 percent, from 2010.
In 2010, Mercer County’s population was 116,638, down 3,655, or 3 percent, from 2000.
Mercer County’s population peaked at more than 128,000 in 1980. By then, however, the economy was already downshifting, as America entered its post-industrial stage.
The former Westinghouse Electric Corp. transformer plant in Sharon employed 10,000 people in the 1940s with good-paying jobs. In 1985, the plant closed.
Wilt acknowledged the heat is on to create and bring businesses to the area.
“We have to take a fresh look at what we’re doing,’’ he said. “This screams for a new vision, a sense of urgency, a new commitment and even saying yes to some ideas that we said no to in the past.’’
No question, he said, attracting younger workers to the area is paramount. The county’s large elderly population is dying off without fresh blood to replace it.
Sharon businessman Jim Landino points a finger at the biggest obstacle in adding population: The mindset of current residents.
“We need to look in the mirror,’’ Landino said with a stern voice. “Since moving to town 20 years ago, all I hear parents telling their children is for them to get a college education and get the hell out. and then we wonder why our (population) numbers look like crap.’’
Over the past five years, Landino has bought dozens of properties in the county, mostly in downtown Sharon. He’s buffed up storefronts and office spaces and also created his own businesses, including LuLu Bean Cafe.
“We’ve planted the seeds and are waiting for them to grow,’’ he said.
Mercer County Commissioner Scott Boyd said Census results came in at what he expected.
“I’m glad it wasn’t worse,’’ Boyd said.
But he added the results show a need to build up the local workforce.
“We need to attract high school and college graduates after they graduate from school,’’ Boyd said.
Using tools such as the Mercer County CareerLink will help. The state agency’s Sharon office helps match companies and workers for job slots. Boyd noted numerous help-wanted signs in Mercer County from businesses desperately seeking workers.
“Things are in good alignment,’’ Boyd said. “We know a lot of jobs are available. It’s a matter of getting the right people in those jobs.’’
Mercer County Commissioner Tim McGonigle said the county must do better. “All of us know that we have to do whatever we can to improve these results,’’ he said. “We have to promote what our county offers to everyone.’’
Mercer isn’t the only county taking a population punch.
Neighboring Lawrence County dropped to 86,070 in 2020, down 5,038, or 5.5 percent, from 2010.
Landino is adamant that small town America is on the rise.
“If you’re living in Chicago, you’re wasting more than an hour a day driving 20 miles to work,’’ he said. “In our area, people can walk to work.’’
But to turn the corner the county has to attract young people by offering entertainment, community events, fine arts, and music festivals.
“All anyone has been worried about is creating jobs,’’ Landino said. “What we need to create is for things to do after work. It’s all about the quality of life.’’