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Chamber responds to Warren Worx concerns

The general idea behind Warren Worx — to be administered by the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry — is the need to develop a central facilitating entity for initiatives and projects in the county.

Warren Worx’ first major assignment is the development of a county brand that can be used by existing organizations to enhance outreach efforts.

The WCCBI has contributed up to $140,000 as part of the effort while the City of Warren and Warren County each contributed $100,000.

But the decision by Warren City Council to fund the effort wasn’t unanimous.

A statement from Commissioner Ken Klakamp can’t be confused with a full-throated endorsement, either.

“So what do we do?” Klakamp asked. “Currently the option of Warren Worx is on the table. Is it the best option? No one knows but we have to do something to draw people and industry into Warren County.”

The Times Observer has field concerns about the scope of Warren Worx from both inside and outside the effort and discussed those concerns with John Papalia, WCCBI senior vice president, who has been tasked with facilitating the initiative.

Warren Worx, facilitated by the WCCBI, is made up of two governing bodies – the executive committee and the stakeholders group.

Papalia said the stakeholders group will be “diverse” and said that group will be the source of projects and recommendations.

The executive committee – which includes representation from the City of Warren and County Commissioners Tricia Durbin and Dan Glotz – will provide a “governance” element, “making sure the dollars are being spent.”

One criticism has been pretty clear – shouldn’t this kind of effort be what the chamber has been doing for decades?

“We acknowledge that,” Papalia said. “Ourselves here at the chamber, people at the city (and) county have all been trying very hard. I think there’s a lot of good that has been done.”

For the chamber, he specifically highlighted the restoration of 300 Second Ave., attracting the headquarters of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College and the Trails at Jakes Rocks.

“In order for the community to grow and to do more it requires more resources, and this collaboration will allow for the pooling of resources,” he said of Warren Worx “including financial, human, and material assets, leading to more efficient and effective community and economic development.”

Where will the public dollars invested in this effort be spent?

That’s somewhat unclear at this stage.

“The marketing director is going to help build that plan,” Papalia said. “That plan is a big part of year one. Developing that plan… that will be the task of the marketing director.”

A concern was raised that municipalities that have not contributed financially may not receive the same level of service.

“I think the projects have to be through the voice of the stakeholders,” Papalia said. “I don’t think one project is going to be prioritized over another. The call to action is engage. Come to the table. Let’s work together and make sure your voice is heard.”

While the public investment certainly carries a degree of risk, it’s a risk for the chamber too.

“Absolutely it’s a risk,” Papalia said. “We have to make sure we can continue to get the resources needed to run things. But I don’t think we would dive into this… with the fear of failing. (We) know it’s going to be a challenge,” he added, with “goals and things like that that need met.”

The executive committee meetings held to date have not been open to the public.

Papalia said that issue has been a topic of discussion while Warren County Visitors Bureau Executive Director Casey Ferry, who serves on the executive committee, said “people have spoken opinions both ways.”

“That is something that is on the table,” Papalia said, and is “something that should be discussed at the first kick-off meeting, as well.”

He added that there “probably has to be some legal look” on the question to “make sure we do things right as we look at this. No one wants to sit here and hide anything.”

The stated goal of Warren Worx is to reverse the county’s long-standing population decline.

That requires one major thing – jobs. But attracting that investment requires a sufficient labor force, which the county cannot currently offer with unemployment under four percent.

How does that loop get broken?

“I don’t have a magic wand here today,” Papalia said. “I really think it starts with the population piece, building the overall quality of life in Warren County…. I think that’s where you start. If we can slow the population bleed and can fill the jobs we have, I think it really focuses on the quality of life in Warren County.”

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