Altoona Mirror: Grant helps provide funds for ‘Startup Alleghenies’

 In News

Originally posted in the Altoona Mirror, William Kibler, June 21, 2017.

As a 16-year-old student at Altoona Area High School, Michael DePiro began designing websites for businesses, eventually parlaying effort into the downtown business he has today — DePiro Entertainment & Designs.

As a neophyte, DePiro could have used the help that is now available to starting entrepreneurs in Blair, Cambria and Somerset counties, based on information provided Tuesday at a news conference hosted by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission.

Funded by a $1.2 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant, matched by an equal amount from local partners, “Startup Alleghenies” will provide entrepreneurs in those three counties with help to get going — to counter direct and indirect coal industry losses in recent years.

The program aims to create an “ecosystem” — with coaches for guidance, locations for workspace and inspiration; resources for planning, marketing mentoring, legal assistance, product development, talent and financing; and educational and network events, according to a flyer distributed at the news conference.

The targets for the program are the kind of efforts that some founders may not even think of as businesses, according to Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of ARC.

Those efforts are often the offspring of lessons learned from grandparents or parents, and often undertaken as a way to make extra money, he said. Those efforts frequently begin in kitchens, spare rooms, basements and garages, said Cambria County Commissioner Mark Wissinger.

It’s hard to bring in big companies from outside the area, but it’s smart to nurture startups that just happen, if for no other reason than they are likely to stick around and become foundational businesses for the local economy, according to Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker.

One of the biggest hurdles for many such startups is funding, and the new program will provide assistance with that, whether in seeking grants, commercial loans, “angel” funding, venture capital or some other means, said Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb, a former banker.

DePiro, 25, who was brought to the news conference as an example of a budding entrepreneur, will be looking to the program in hopes of taking advantage even now — and to offer help to companies in the position he was in as a high schooler.

In Blair County, the startup program will be “overlaid” with the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp.’s existing business-assistance programs, said Blair County coach Rich Lasek, who will be keeping a sharp lookout for growth opportunities on behalf of program clients.

The competitively obtained grant that is providing half the funding for the program comes from a $50 million ARC pot of money — the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative — designed to remedy the loss of coal jobs, according to Deborah Prosser, SAPDC director of business development.

The SAPDC, a local development district of the ARC, hopes that within three years Startup Alleghenies can help create 25 new businesses, help 30 existing businesses grow with “emerging” ideas and 20 businesses add workers or revenue sources, according to a flyer in the news conference packet.

While many of Somerset and Cambria counties’ coal industry losses are direct, Blair County’s are indirect — primarily the result of the precipitous loss of coal hauling contracts for Norfolk Southern Railway, Prosser said.

Ironically, Alleghenies Startup is coming on line locally in the early months of the administration of Donald Trump, who promised to revitalize the coal industry.

There is hope for a rebound in coal used for smelting metal but not so much for that used in power plants, which have moved to natural gas in large numbers and aren’t likely to reconvert, Prosser said.

Ironically also, Allegheny Startup is coming on line despite Trump’s proposal to dismantle ARC — a dismantling ARC officials are confident won’t actually happen, partly because of efforts to demonstrate the organization’s importance to an area that was critical in electing Trump president, according to SAPDC spokesman Ben Mazur.

Startup and would-be entrepreneurs interested in getting help from the program can start by going to its website,

A “Big Idea Contest” open to entrepreneurs in 12 central and western Pennsylvania counties — including the three that are benefiting from Startup Alleghenies — is designed to “prime the pump” for the new program, said Jerry Hudson, portfolio manager for the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a business assistance program headquartered at Penn State.