By Mark Pesto | Original Article
[email protected]
April 11, 2017

MARTINSBURG – Drug abuse, blight, poor health and slow internet are four of the most pressing problems facing the Southern Alleghenies region of Pennsylvania, according to the hundreds of residents who have given feedback to the leaders of an effort to develop a comprehensive plan for the six-county region.

Officials from Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, Huntingdon and Fulton counties gathered at the Martinsburg Municipal Building on Monday afternoon to discuss the progress of the Alleghenies Ahead project.

That project is the fruit of county leaders’ attempts to think on a regional level as they update their comprehensive plans, project manager Peter Lombardi, an associate at Alexandria, Virginia-based neighborhood development consulting firm czb LLC, said Monday.

Too often in the past, Lombardi said, county comprehensive plans have been designed with too narrow a focus – and, in avoiding discussion of the plans’ real-world impact, have ignored the fact that the purpose of any plan is to be put into practice.

Alleghenies Ahead, he added, won’t have those flaws – its leaders are working to come up with lists of action plans that will tangibly improve county residents’ lives.

“What’s really important about Alleghenies Ahead,” Lombardi said, “is that it’s … what’s being called an ‘implementable’ comprehensive plan.”

That means, he explained, that project leaders are working to “move beyond the planning that results in a 300-, 400-page document that has 200 pages of statistics and a list of recommendations that is far too long for a community to sink its teeth into and implement in a serious way.”

“This project is all about … not only creating a comprehensive plan, one that is regional in its scope, but also is very focused on setting some priorities that each county can really tackle with full energy and full resources over the next three, five, ten years,” he added.

Under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code of 1968, each Pennsylvania county is required to develop a comprehensive plan, which guides how the county’s leaders address issues like land use, sustainability, protection of natural resources and management of population growth.

A comprehensive plan “sets the general direction for counties and agencies that operate in the counties,” Lombardi said. “It’s really crucial to guide investment in the county over a 10- to 15-year period.”

Five of the six counties participating in the Alleghenies Ahead project have comprehensive plans that are more than a decade old, according to the project website. Cambria County, the sole exception, last updated its comprehensive plan in 2011.

As the time draws near for the counties’ planning departments to update their plans, the leaders of the counties’ governments have chosen to work together to address issues facing the entire region – thus creating the Alleghenies Ahead project.

“It’s the first time this has been done in Pennsylvania,” Lombardi said. “It’s one of only a few instances in the country, I think, of comprehensive planning being done at this scale.”

Officials say the collaborative effort has had and will have a range of positive effects on each participating county and on the entire region.

“We get the benefit of having a shared regional set of values and principles,” Mark Colussy, director of the Huntingdon County Planning Commission, said. “I think you’ll find – what we’re finding, going through the process, is – that the values, principles, priorities and projects that we’ve talked about are more similar across county boundaries than they are dissimilar … As we strengthen each individual county, we strengthen the region, and vice versa.”

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk said the collective approach has saved his constituents some money, too.

“There’s an economic benefit, because it saved each county half of what it’d have cost if we’d have done it on our own,” Vatavuk said. “That’s a big savings right there for our county.”

And counties that cooperate carry significant weight when it comes to securing state or federal funding for infrastructure improvements, social programs and other initiatives, according to several Alleghenies Ahead leaders.

Six county governments working together “make a much more powerful argument” for funding than a single county can make on its own, Don Schwartz, the Bedford County Planning Commission’s planning director, said.

Brandon Carson, a Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission director, agreed: “It makes it much easier to sell a project when you have this regional approach that supports it,” he said.

Project leaders have been working for the last six months on the project, which is tentatively scheduled to take 10 more months to complete, Katie Kinka, a senior planner for the Cambria County Planning Commission and Alleghenies Ahead’s regional planning coordinator, said.

Right now, project leaders are asking the public to weigh in through an online survey, available on the project’s website, on what they think the biggest challenges facing their communities are.

A series of public open houses – at least one in each of the six counties – will be held during the week of May 22, 2017.

And members of six county-level steering committees – one committee per county – are now holding “kitchen-table conversations,” as Lombardi put it, with county residents, aiming to discover the county’s core values, the major challenges each county faces and the direction in which each county’s residents want it to go.

So far, the region’s epidemic of opiate abuse is a major topic of conversation, according to project officials.

“It’s a problem everywhere in the six-county region,” Vatavuk said.

Schwartz said he’s hearing that residents of Bedford and Fulton counties want faster broadband internet and better cellphone services – two amenities they say are key to attracting new businesses to the region.

Workers in the technology industry, many of whom work from home and telecommute to offices in major metropolitan areas hundreds of miles away, also depend on fast, reliable internet service. Bringing that convenience to Bedford County could attract more such workers – and their money – to the region.

“The southern part of Bedford County, and also Fulton County, is starting to be populated by folks from the (Washington, D.C.) area, and they want (high-speed internet),” Schwartz said. “Businesses want that. People who want to work from home want that, and a large part of our county doesn’t have that. It’s going to be important, (when) bringing new businesses into rural counties, (to have) the ability to connect.

“When we get to the end of this, that may be our very first implementable project – trying to increase broadband service,” Schwartz added.

For Ethan Imhoff, executive director of the Cambria County Planning Commission, blight – both in the city of Johnstown and in more rural areas of the region – is a formidable challenge to overcome.

“The region has a set of circumstances, in terms of the age of our population, the age of our housing stock … blight is an issue in the city of Johnstown, the city of Altoona, but it’s also an issue in every single municipality in the region,” Imhoff said.

And David McFarland, head of the Blair County Planning Commission, pointed to poor health – especially obesity – as another subject that members of his county’s steering committees are hearing about over and over again.

These are just a few of the issues that have been brought up at the steering committees’ meetings with the public, which will continue until the end of June.

Later this summer, project members will work to translate residents’ priorities into action plans for each county.

In the fall, drafts of the action plans – tailored to address each county’s problem areas – will be delivered for review and refinement, and early next year, if all goes according to plan, the final versions of each county’s plan will be adopted.

Throughout the process, the members of the Alleghenies Ahead team will be guided by Lombardi’s mantra: “Plan regionally, implement locally.”

“What we’re doing here … is planning regionally – thinking about some of these trends that are having implications throughout the region, but then thinking about how you implement solutions at a local level,” Lombardi said.

“That’s really the crux of what we’ll be doing the rest of this year – thinking about how to translate regional trends, regional issues, into a very clear set of implementable local steps.”