DCED secretary talks about blight, broadband and Route 219 with Somerset County leaders

February 23, 2019

In the midst of scrambled eggs and local leaders, state Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin discussed the governor’s proposed initiatives to combat economic issues in areas such as Somerset County.

Providing remarks during the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs & Issues breakfast Friday, Davin discussed how Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania and Statewide Workforce, Education and Accountability programs could help in Somerset County. The proposed initiatives are efforts to expand broadband access, combat blight and strengthen workforce development in the state.

“Projects will be driven by local input to address local needs,” Davin said. “That means Somerset County will decide what its biggest priorities are, not the state.”

The Restore Pennsylvania plan calls for a severance tax on the natural gas industry to fund a $4.5 billion investment in local infrastructure.

This is the fifth time the governor’s office has proposed a severance tax, which has been rejected by the Legislature each time. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 34 states have enacted fees or taxes on oil and gas production.

Davin said a severance tax on natural gas has always been controversial, but he believes it is one of the only ways to generate the revenue to address critical issues.

“I don’t believe it’s going to cost Pennsylvania one job to enact the severance tax,” Davin said. “I really think the uses of these funds are critical for areas like Somerset County.”

One of the major areas the Wolf administration would like to use that money for is to combat blight, something Davin said the state needs to invest funds into more than ever.

“The amount of Community Development Block Grant dollars from the federal government has steadily decreased to where it is a fraction of what it was 25 years ago,” he said. “That was the amount of money we always used for blight reduction, (but) that money doesn’t exist anymore.”

Somerset County officials have been looking for ways to expand broadband access to local businesses, something Davin said is not only critical for public safety and economic development, but also for the future needs of students.

“There are communities where school districts give kids iPads because it’s cheaper than buying books,” he said. “They get the iPads, they go home and they don’t have access to broadband at home. Mom has to bring them back to school or McDonald’s to get broadband access. That simply cannot happen.”

Davin also discussed strengthening workforce development and providing options for students to enter the workforce outside of a traditional four-year degree. Davin said state funding has gone into expanding STEM education, career and technical training, apprenticeships and incumbent worker training to provide those options.

“While Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have a lot to offer, not everybody wants to live in the big city,” he said. “You have a lot of opportunities for young people to go into a number of areas throughout Pennsylvania. It’s our job to do what we can to entice them to come into these areas.”

On Tuesday, Wolf announced the creation of the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, which officials said expands the collaboration between state government and the private sector to address the skills gap and worker shortages.

“The command center is designed around the philosophy that in order to create the best workforce in the nation, we need government leaders, schools and industry to all work together,” Davin said.

Members of the crowd asked Davin what the state’s role would be in finishing construction of four-lane Route 219. Officials opened the long-awaited roadway between Somerset and Meyersdale in November, but many are still trying to secure funding to build the final 5.5 miles to Maryland.

“Part of Restore Pa. is things like that,” he said. “Not just to fund the whole thing, but to fund maybe some of the state’s portion with PennDOT dollars and with federal loans.”

Ron Aldom, chamber executive director, said the breakfast gives local and state leaders a chance to have a dialogue. More than 110 school officials, local legislators and business owners attended the event at Oakhurst Grille & Event Center in Jefferson Township.

“Even based on (Davin’s) answers, and what he took out of here, obviously there is going to be some more dialogue,” he said. “I’m sure he walked out of here with some knowledge that he didn’t have coming in.”