Rural PA Can Thrive, Not Just Survive

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When it comes to rural Pennsylvania, reporters have focused on three issues: the pace of rural population loss, what happens when these communities hit rock bottom, and if anything can be done.

The last point – what can be done – is the key challenge faced by rural communities in multiple states, including in regions of the Rust Belt like Pennsylvania.

But there’s a path forward, one that shouldn’t prove costly to taxpayers nor require new government agencies. If done right, rural Pennsylvania could contribute to the state’s economic development instead of requiring a bailout.

But first, a reminder to those reporters covering rural communities like anthropologists visiting another planet: rural Pennsylvanians have similar interests to those in city neighborhoods like South Philadelphia or suburbia, from Lower Merion to Quakertown. Nevertheless, these same reporters seem equally puzzled by rural residents as they do in determining what new government programs or agencies can “fix” their locals.

The answer is simple: they want good jobs, decent schools and a better quality of life, ranging from healthcare to economic viability.

This civic foundation would lead families to stay in rural communities and raise their families there – and continue a multi-generational commitment to their hometowns. After all, Pennsylvanians living in the “T” are tired of their number one export: children and grandchildren relocating elsewhere. They leave due to economic disruption but also because of poor decisions made by politicians.

But we can fix rural Pennsylvania’s population decline – and even spark growth – with sensible policies.

For example, Pennsylvania is sitting on enough natural gas – almost entirely in rural counties – to out-power Saudi Arabia for two centuries. The state should institute regulations, legislation, and tax policies that encourage this energy source’s growth and development. Instead, political rhetoric and policies have tried to slow down, if not, ban it.

If embraced, the natural gas sector could lead to countless high-paying, even six-figure, jobs in rural Pennsylvania. Those jobs would involve locating the gas, drilling for wells, piping the resource, and then transporting it for fuel. Moreover, these communities, despite their location, don’t have the pipeline infrastructure to use local gas for homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools. Investing in this resource, though, would lead to lower personal, business, educational, and healthcare costs.

In addition, the natural gas sector would create thousands of ancillary businesses and jobs, including those involving machinery, tools, servicing, equipment, and repairs. Those workers need to eat, buy clothes, get medicine, buy cars – live life.

To illustrate these points, a decade ago, when I was CEO of the Chester County Chamber, I took my board to visit well pads in Susquehanna County and businesses in Williamsport. I explained to board members that the pipes used for extraction needed to be cleaned. So, eventually, a Berks County company that made wire brushes created a tool to do the job. The company then needed to ship these brushes to countless well pads across Pennsylvania. And so, they hired a box manufacturer in the Poconos. Meanwhile, in another case, a Lycoming County company made tough, durable plastic sponge-like pads and action figures for amusement parks. Drillers learned of this business and, together, they manufactured enormous durable, protective pads to be used on well pads to ensure that no dirty water seeped into the ground.

For those in Harrisburg: this is called a multiplier effect – how jobs and entrepreneurs are made, and how economies grow.

But there’s more. Natural gas has component parts that lead to chemical manufacturing of anything from aspirin and Stanley tumblers to dri-fit shirts that can be made throughout Pennsylvania.

All this can lead to lower energy costs, more jobs, and additional tax revenue.

And yet, too many in Harrisburg and Washington have focused on the fatuous idea of “banning” fossil fuels. They’ve ignored the facts, opportunities, and realities of the clean burning of natural gas under our feet.

Meanwhile, on the issue of healthcare, rural communities still confront challenges related to accessing treatment. Rural Pennsylvanians must often travel out of town for quality healthcare. Besides excellent local systems like Geisinger, located in Montour County, rural Pennsylvanians would benefit from some of the top doctors in Pennsylvania, if not the world, at Penn Medicine, Penn State Health, and UPMC, among others. These Pennsylvanians would receive better care if Harrisburg updated and improved laws and regulations around telemedicine.

And when it comes to schools, though there are some decent K-12 schools and colleges in rural Pennsylvania, these regions still lack quality education compared to cities and suburbia, in addition to variety of curricula. Cyber K-12 schools and online universities would help bridge the gaps and provide a first-rate education, especially during these years when the student population is lower. Expanding school choice and protecting cyber schools would help educate rural students, build a local workforce, and encourage people to stay and raise their families in these communities.

Of course, telemedicine, K-12 cyber schools, and online universities all require improved WiFi/broadband access. But Pennsylvania regulations make it even more costly and frustrating to bring broadband to rural communities. Harrisburg should get out of the way and encourage development and new technology. The legislature should focus on moving regulatory agencies out of the way so that broadband can be developed and become cost effective.

From family-sustaining jobs and new businesses to quality healthcare and education, people in Bradford County’s Towanda should have the same amenities as people in Chester County’s West Chester. This can be done without new government agencies and programs.

It’s time to allow rural Pennsylvania to use the resources under their feet – and ensure that their families have access to excellent schools and healthcare.

If we let them build it, people will stay – and, yes, new people will come and make it their home.

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