Students create new visions for region's future at Economic Exchange Day
By Chris Ulicne
Bulletin Staff Writer
Area high school students on Wednesday worked with local and regional officials to come up with plans to improve the quality of life and the economy in their communities during Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Exchange Day, hosted this year by Derry Area High School (DAHS).
"The idea behind it is to get the kids to look at and apply the economics they’ve learned throughout the year," said Derry Area faculty member Jeff Kelly. "We get them to look at economics in an applied situation, because when you’re sitting in a classroom just looking at this stuff, it gets kind of boring."
The event kicked off with a panel discussion that included leaders from many local municipalities and organizations. The discussion focused on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT)’s Laurel Valley project for the future development of the Route 981 corridor, from its intersection with the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Mount Pleasant to Route 22 near New Alexandria and Blairsville, with a focus on growth around Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
"We’re looking at how we can accommodate commercial vehicles while improving the (Route) 981 corridor to and from the airport or improving the surrounding roadways," said Joseph Szczur, PE, PennDOT District 12 district engineer. "We’re very early in the planning stages and we want the local businesses and communities to be involved in the process. This is a neat forum by which we can get young people helping us make some of the key decisions."
After splitting up into groups and creating a vision statement, and a list of the pros and cons of further development of the Route 981 corridor, students used large maps to draw the kind of improvements they feel would have a positive impact on the region.
Most of the student groups focused on recreation as a key factor in improving the quality of life and economy in local communities.
"We want to attract families and people of all ages, so we’re suggesting an environmentally ’green’ park," said student Nicholas McNutt of his group’s concept. "We’re thinking something like Keystone (State Park)."
He explained that his group also discussed introducing a "trolley system" to the area to provide an alternative mode of transportation that would help cut down on road traffic, as well as the introduction of new farmers’ markets and small businesses to help drive the local economy.
Student Alyssa Myers’ group had similar recommendations, suggesting a trolley to tie in to the local history of Latrobe legend Fred Rogers from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and recreational facilities such as campgrounds and attractions like farmers’ markets to draw people to the area.
Myers said her group also was interested in the concept of restoring old buildings in the area and repurposing them instead of building new structures, as well as trying to develop the region as a tourist destination. "We want it to be more of a vacation spot, focusing on the historical and educational aspects," she said.
Student James Good said his group was recommending that officials look at increasing interconnectivity between shopping areas in the region while also working to beautify urban areas, having a positive impact on the environment.
Student Nick Gruss’ group focused on the area around Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, suggesting the construction of a new "multi-purpose recreational facility" somewhere nearby to help attract business to the airport and the region. "We want to highlight the family-friendly setting in the area," Gruss said.
Gabe Monzo, the airport’s executive director, said earlier in the program that the airport is bringing people to the region from all over the country in large part because it offers an affordable price point, and that’s something that must be considered as the airport and its influence continue to grow.
He said the "green" movement is going to have an impact on that expansion because that’s "where the money is" right now.
"We go where the money is, and right now it’s in sustainability," Monzo said.
Latrobe City Manager Alex Graziani also noted society’s increased environmental awareness and desire to protect the natural world, adding that the decisions made by past generations have left behind a "significant legacy" and that the students and their peers will shape their own legacy in the years to come.
Polled by one of the committee members for the Economic Exchange Day event, approximately half of the students present raised their hands when they were all asked how many planned to continue to live in the area 10 years in the future.
Szczur urged the students to keep in mind that while new roads are often convenient for motorists, introducing more traffic to an area can often lead to more heavy vehicles on the roads, noise problems and other issues -- so it’s important to make sure that any new roadways "are done the proper way to provide good service for generations to come."
"There’s a right way to do things," he said, noting the environmental and other concerns involved in PennDOT’s decision-making process. "We want to bring it all together."