Tribune Democrat: Startup Alleghenies striving to grow employers from within

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Originally published in Tribune Democrat, June 21, 2017 by Mark Pesto

ALTOONA – Many of the people who will be key to the economic survival of southwestern Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Mountains as a whole over the next several years don’t realize how important they are, Earl Gohl believes.

“It seems oftentimes that everyone in Appalachia runs a business out the back of their truck, out of the kitchen, out of the garage, out of the shed out back,” Gohl, federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, said Tuesday.

“These folks oftentimes don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs. They just think of themselves as taking the lessons their papa or mama taught them and turning them into a way of making a little extra money.”

But, Gohl argued, each of those small businesses adds up to create a mighty engine of economic vitality: “The reality is, they are entrepreneurs.

“They’re an important part of our community and … of the future of communities throughout Appalachia.”

Tri-county target area

On Tuesday, Gohl and other local and regional officials launched Startup Alleghenies – a program designed to “build a robust entrepreneurial pipeline” between entrepreneurs in Cambria, Somerset and Blair counties and the resources their businesses need to thrive – during a press conference at Blair County Convention Center in Altoona.

Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission will administer the program, which is funded by a $1.2 million  grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state economic development partnership, and by $1.2 million in matching funds.

The three counties targeted by the program were especially hard-hit by the decline of the region’s coal industry, said Steven Howsare, executive director of the Southern Alleghenies commission.

“Facing a significant downturn in the local coal industry, a longtime economic staple in our region, leaders sought to identify new growth drivers that could create new jobs and business opportunities in the coming decades,” Howsare said.

“One of the answers that presented itself is (that) we need more entrepreneurs.”

Entrepreneurs are especially needed now, Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker said, because the time has passed when a single large corporation could provide thousands of jobs in a town by opening a mine or a factory.

Employers that stay

Today, Walker added, small businesses rooted within the communities they serve act as the “sources of innovation and economic enthusiasm” that are needed to drive the county’s economy.

“If we can grow our employers from within, we’re much farther ahead, because those are the employers that stick with us for many years,” he said.

Leaders said the Startup Alleghenies project will provide access to four types of resources that entrepreneurs need: “idea mines,” technical assistance, financing and coaches.

“Idea mines,” as defined by Cambria County Commissioner Mark Wissinger, are places where entrepreneurs can come together to network and share ideas – places like co-working spaces, maker spaces and multi-tenant buildings.

Some examples of co-working spaces in the Startup Alleghenies target area include 814 Worx in Johnstown, Altoona LaunchBox and an in-progress startup accelerator planned by Somerset County Economic Development Council, Wissinger said.

Assistance available

Technical assistance, Walker said, “will raise (entrepreneurs’) odds of success.”

Startup Alleghenies officials will help entrepreneurs “develop and refine business plans, choose the right name, find a space that works for them, address legal issues related to business formation, develop and execute marketing strategies, connect with mentors, develop their product, connect with talent and much, much more,” he added.

Financing help, according to Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb, will enable entrepreneurs to choose the start-up capital sources that are best for them. Options include self-funding, angel funding, venture capital, grants, conventional loans and special small-business-focused programs.

Finally, one “entrepreneurial and innovation coach” per county will serve as the point of contact for entrepreneurs with questions. Those people will direct any entrepreneur who reaches out to them to the resources needed.

The coaches are:

  • Cambria County: Jose Luis Otero, a Johnstown resident who has worked in public relations, financial analysis, risk management, government and health care.
  • Somerset County: Daniel J. Parisi, a Somerset County native and Somerset County Economic Development Council executive with a broad business background.
  • Blair County: Richard Lasek, a banker who serves as manager of loan servicing and entrepreneurial development at the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp.

“The coaches are kind of like the tip of the spear,” Lasek said.

More information on Startup Alleghenies, including contact information for the entrepreneurial coaches, is available online at www.startupalleghenies.com.

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