Appalachian Boomtown

Lycoming County

Business is booming in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Forbes named its largest city, Williamsport, the 7th Best Small City for Jobs in 2012; the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) reported that Williamsport had the 6th highest Average Annual Increase in Wages and Salaries of any U.S. metro area in 2013; The Milken Institute ranked Williamsport number six in its list of Best Performing U.S. cities in 2013 (up from number 19 the year before); and figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis have shown Williamsport to be the seventh fastest growing metropolitan area anywhere in the country.

“We’ve been on every good list there is,” says Williamsport / Lycoming County Chamber President, Vince Matteo, of the region’s remarkably high rankings.

So what is the secret behind the Appalachian community’s skyrocketing economy? “It is the Marcellus Shale natural gas plane,” Dr. Matteo says simply. “We’ve embraced it, we’ve looked at it from a positive aspect and we have been very successful in getting companies that are in the gas industry to locate here.”

Until just recently, the Marcellus Shale garnered little attention; drilling attempts did not produce enough natural gas to lure the industry, leaving its resources largely untapped for years. Everything changed in 2005, when Range Resources – Appalachia LLC used hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to bring up the coveted gas, geology.com reports. The industry exploded overnight. By the end of 2007, over 375 gas wells with suspected Marcellus intent had been permitted in Pennsylvania.

The following year, experts announced that the Marcellus might contain a mind boggling 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Fracking, which had already been used in Texas’ Barnett Shale, was expected to make around 10 percent of that gas (approximately 50 trillion cubic feet) recoverable – enough gas to supply the entire United States for two years and provide a wellhead value of about one trillion dollars, according to geology.com.

Lycoming County recognized an opportunity – and seized it. The key, Dr. Matteo says, has been to reinvent the community as a base for all of the industry’s Marcellus related activities. “Six years ago, when it was just starting, I made a tongue in cheek comment that I didn’t care if they drilled one well in Lycoming County,” Dr. Matteo recalls. “I wanted to get the companies who would be drilling and servicing those wells to locate in Lycoming County. And that is what we did. We went out and went after those companies.”

The Chamber doggedly pursued the industry’s biggest names, ensuring that their community would become a regional center for the boom. “We got them located in Lycoming County so the jobs are based here,” Dr. Matteo says. “Ironically, in 2012 more wells were drilled in Lycoming County then any other county in the Marcellus and in 2013 Lycoming County had the 3rd highest number of wells drilled. And the drilling hasn’t stopped.”

With just 115,000 people spread over 1,250 square miles, rural Lycoming County may seem an unlikely spot to play center stage in the economic bonanza; however, with Williamsport claiming the title of largest city in north central Pennsylvania, the area boasts more infrastructure than many surrounding counties. “We have the highways, we have the rooms,” Dr. Matteo points out. As a result, Lycoming County has been able to provide for the needs of a rapidly growing workforce, while “there was a housing shortage in a lot of communities north of us.”

And the community isn’t yet finished taking advantage of the gas beneath its feet. “Our next step in development is to target companies that are large natural gas users,” Dr. Matteo shares. For starters, Panda Energy International has just broken ground on a huge gas to electric power plant in Lycoming County’s Clinton Township. The 800 megawatt power plant is an $800 million to $1 billion project designed to convert natural gas into electricity and then sell it into the grid.

Transforming a rural outpost to the home base of a natural gas phenomenon is not easy, and the community is taking a proactive role in overcoming the challenges. For example, the Lycoming County government created a public private partnership in order to effectively manage the sudden economic growth. “That has worked extremely well for us,” Dr. Matteo reports. The Community Natural Gas Task Force (CNGTF) brings together government officials and local community leaders to identify key issues, research facts and information, and review and propose public policy regarding the economic impact of gas exploration in Lycoming County.

The Chamber also started a private sector group, the Business Energy Round Table, to discuss challenges and develop solutions outside of the sphere of government. The organization gives local business the opportunity “to talk about issues that they are having with government, whether it is local, state, or federal, and then we [the Chamber] can go talk to the government about it,” Dr. Matteo explains. The Business Energy Round Table has also helped bring local businesses into the natural gas supply chain, ensuring that the community is taking full advantage of the boom.

While natural gas is certainly the primary economic driver, Lycoming County is also known for its food processing, with industry giants such as Kellogg and Frito-Lay manufacturing there. “Years ago there was a big push to get food processing here,” Dr. Matteo recalls. “It became a very big employer in this area and it is still very important to us.”

The county also benefits from the educational opportunities brought by Williamsport’s two colleges. Lycoming College is a private liberal arts school, while Pennsylvania College of Technology (Penn College) is “one of the premier technical schools on the east coast,” Dr. Matteo reports. Penn College is taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by the natural gas boom and is helping to train the community to work in the industry. The efforts have paid off, and the school’s Overall Graduate Placement Rate is nearly 94 percent. “Penn College is probably the biggest economic development plus we have here.”

Until the recent boom, Lycoming County was best known as the home of Little League Baseball. Each August, thousands still flock to Williamsport to watch the Little League World Series and see which team will be crowned the champions. This year marks Little League’s 75th anniversary, and Williamsport is pulling out all the stops to celebrate the much loved organization. With events ranging from the annual Little League Grand Slam Parade to the Williamsport Welcomes the World Festival, the city will be an exciting destination for Little League fans from all around the globe this summer.

Lycoming County is also known for its outdoor recreation and stunning natural scenery. “There are some 202,500 acres of Lycoming County that are state forest and game lands,” Dr. Matteo says, “and it is all beautiful.” Located at the base of the Bald Eagle Mountains, at the foothills of the Alleghenies, the area is ideal for boating, hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. In fact, USA Today has rated a local trail system as one of the best hiking and biking trails in the world, listing it alongside trails in international tourist destinations such as Tuscany, Italy.

Fishing is also a huge draw. “Little Pine Creek has some of the best trout fishing in the world,” Dr. Matteo points out. “Former Vice President Cheney comes up here a lot to do his fly fishing and President Carter has been up here too.” Indeed, outdoor enthusiasts from all over the nation enjoy vacationing in the region. “Outdoor recreation is very big here in Lycoming County, which is why we take protecting the environment [in regards to] the gas industry very seriously,” Dr. Matteo says. “It is very important.”

The county has its hands full balancing the needs of the environment along with the needs of the community and the natural gas industry. But, they are up for the job, Dr. Matteo insists, and the community has made a tremendous effort to strike the right balance. “It has taken a lot of people doing a lot of work – and we will have to keep at it. But I’d say 98 percent of [the natural gas boom] has been positive, especially in Lycoming County.”

For more information about Lycoming County, please visit http://www.lyco.org/

October 23, 2017, 1:48 AM EDT

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