By Matthew Toth | Original Article
April 17, 2018

Broadband internet access and blight were some of the top concerns Somerset County officials addressed when they rolled out their comprehensive plan Tuesday.

Officials told the 16 residents who attended a public meeting at the county office building about a potential roadmap for the county’s future. The initiative is part of a 16-month project that brought six counties in the Southern Alleghenies region together to create their individual plans.

County Commissioner Gerald Walker said officials tried to make the plan smaller than the last one, created in 2005, so more things can be accomplished.

“We’ve already got the ball rolling, and I think that’s encouraging,” he said. The commissioners said they have taken steps to provide more broadband access in the county. The county has received $1.5 million in grants for internet expansion.

“We have two broadband projects: one to connect the four business parks and another one for the 911 center,” Commissioner John Vatavuk said. “That’s got to help a lot.”

The business parks are located in Somerset, Boswell and Meyersdale. The 911 center is located in Somerset Borough.

The county has 5,511 homes or businesses that lack service and are eligible for an upcoming broadband assistance auction, according to data released by the Federal Communications Commission. The county had the highest number of eligible locations in the state.

“We’re hoping to build not just with the two programs we have going on,” Walker said.

Officials also recommended a plan to demolish five to seven blighted properties a year in the county, starting in June. The Somerset County Redevelopment Authority and a soon-to-be-created Problem Property Identification Committee would have up to $75,000 for demolition purposes, which officials said will come from the demolition fund created in November. The account is funded by a $15 deed and mortgage recording fee.

“Region-wide there’s 11,500 structures that are abandoned,” Brad Zearfoss, director of the Somerset County Planning Commission, said.

Improved recreational amenities, workforce development and collaboration with municipalities are also part of the county plan.

Many officials at the meeting said more needs to be done to highlight “small successes” in the county, which would attract more people and businesses to the area.

“We have all the recreational amenities, the people are strong and we bleed talent like it’s our job,” Regina Coughenour, executive director of Somerset Inc., said.

Officials said there’s a 45-day comment period, then commissioners can adopt the plan. Counties are required by the state to update their plans every 10 years.

“We’ve got a lot of good things going on in the county, but it just takes a little time,” Vatavuk said.

Residents can see the full plan on the county website at www.co.somerset.pa.us.