Strengthening Communities across the Commonwealth

Pennsylvania, once known worldwide for its prowess in industries such as steel, iron and coal, has been facing an economic identity crisis.
Harry Stokes, Adams County Commissioner

Harry Stokes, Adams County Commissioner

"The economic impact modeling that Penn State performed for Adams County and the fruit growers of this region on the plum pox virus was absolutely critical to our obtaining supportive legislation and administrative rulings from the state and federal governments, which will allow our fruit industry to survive."

Over the past 30 years, many heavy industries permanently closed their doors, eliminating nearly 35 percent of the state's manufacturing jobs. During the same period, 15,000 Pennsylvania farms went out of business, taking with them an important component of the state's rural economic base. In some Pennsylvania regions, high-tech firms, service industries and other businesses moved in to fill the gap, and the pressures of rapid growth loom large. But that gap remains open for much of rural Pennsylvania, and some communities are hanging on by a thread.

Whether it's economic boom or bust in a given community, unique challenges must be faced as change occurs. Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has developed new tools and programs to help communities and individuals address the challenges of economic change on many fronts.

The Payoff

Creating an economic crystal ball

Thanks to a new computer program called Community Impact Model -- Penn State University (CIM-PSU), local officials and citizens can better understand how economic shifts will affect their communities. To build the computer model, scientists and extension specialists analyze the economic relationships within a community, including input from local stakeholders. Then "what if" factors, such as a factory shut-down or a proposed housing development, can be plugged into the model to see what happens. CIM-PSU can predict how these types of economic changes will affect local employment, population, tax revenues and expenditures by municipal and county governments as well as school districts and other service organizations. This information enables local citizens and officials to find appropriate ways to respond to change.

CIM-PSU has been used to analyze the economic impact of Pennsylvania's hardwood industry, the plum pox virus in Adams County orchards, a proposed residential development and new travel plaza in Susquehanna County, and a major coal mine closing and a proposed power plant in Indiana County. In Warren County, the program is being used to assess the local economic value of timbering and recreation in the Allegheny National Forest. Results from CIM-PSU are used by local governments, chambers of commerce and other groups to apply for state grants to alleviate employment losses, assist communities in their economic development plans and solve special problems.

Collaborations pay off

Throughout Pennsylvania, Penn State Cooperative Extension collaborates with state and local governments, agencies and businesses to help people become more employable, retain employment or upgrade their skills. A good example of this partnership is the Venango Employability Skills Training (InVEST) program, jointly sponsored by cooperative extension, the Clarion/Venango Educational Resources Alliance and seven local companies. Staff from cooperative extension and the area companies design and teach InVEST courses in math, writing, computer literacy, workplace communications, teamwork, personal and career development, and other job skills.

Of the first graduating class in 1998, all InVEST students were successful in capturing their desired level of employment. Of the 110 people who have completed the course to date, more than 80 have used the training to land better jobs, while others have solidified or upgraded their positions within their current company. Employers cite graduates' increased ability to learn and enhanced promotability. Throughout the state, cooperative extension educators in 37 counties provide similar training for nearly 1,200 individuals. Based upon the success of these programs, cooperative extension recently received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, dramatically leveraging state and local funding for workforce education programs.

Successful farm financing

A good farm crop doesn't always translate to a healthy bottom line. To help Pennsylvania's farmers who need financial know-how, Penn State Cooperative Extension, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Farm Service Agency (FSA), has developed the Farm Finance Analysis Training (FFAT) program. This program, and others like it, teaches the nuts-and-bolts of agricultural financial management to farmers who have turned to the FSA as their lender of last resort.

FFAT students learn to prepare farm cash flow statements, balance sheets, production-based income statements and four-year farm plans. The follow-up Production Management Course uses case studies and real-life problems to help farmers develop more profitable farm production plans.

Since 1994-95, the program has reached more than 1,500 Pennsylvania farm families, as well as 500 additional producers in the Northeast. Participants report that the skills they learned immediately increased their farm's value by an annual average of as much as $7,000. In addition, the farmers demonstrate much improved skills in financial management, developing farm financial statements and long-range financial planning.

Developing local entrepreneurs

Small businesses are at the root of Pennsylvania's economic infrastructure. Starting a Small Business: A Comprehensive Overview for Mifflin County Entrepreneurs is an annual program sponsored by Penn State Cooperative Extension and developed in conjunction with Penn State's Smeal College of Business and the Mifflin County Planning and Development Department. The course utilizes instructors from the sponsoring organizations as well as successful Juniata Valley business leaders. Students start with basic business decision making, get an introduction to marketing and advertising, and cover such topics as pricing strategies, insurance, legal processes, financial planning and starting a payroll. At the program's conclusion, each participant has generated a business plan for a new start-up.

The College of Agricultural Sciences community and economic development programs are a collaborative effort among the Departments of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Agricultural and Extension Education, and Penn State Cooperative Extension and local collaborators. For more information, contact Natalie Ferry at (814) 863-3439 or visit the Extension website or the Community Development website.