Boon or Bust Part V: Natural gas industry ignites economic development, job creation in Pa.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a seven-part series on natural gas drilling gleaned from a recent staff outing to Pennsylvania. It will continue each Thursday in The Evening Sun.

SUSQUEHANNA COUNTY, Pa. – For the last two years, much of the U.S. has been experiencing unemployment levels in the double digits, but not Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier.

At a time when much of the country has been seeing jobs disappear, the northeastern corner of the Keystone State has bucked the trend. Bradford County, which neighbors Susquehanna County to the west, led Pennsylvania in job creation last year, with some 2,000 new jobs created between September 2009 and September 2010.

According to Anthony Ventello, executive director of the Progress Authority, the vast majority of those jobs can be attributed to the area’s booming natural gas industry.

“The Marcellus Play has changed our lives. It dominates all local conversations and agendas,” Ventello has stated in testimony before both House and Senate committees in the past year.

And he should know, as his agency has been instrumental in connecting the dots between natural gas related-companies and local businesses and communities in such a way that the region can reap the economic rewards of the booming industry.

The Progress Authority was established in 1993 by a group of area business people who felt regional economic development dollars weren’t being used in such a way to stymie the steady loss of manufacturing jobs. Ventello, who served as Bradford County’s planner for 12 years, was an obvious choice to lead the new agency, which was initially known as the Central Bradford Progress Authority. Today, the organization serves as the regional economic and industrial development authority for Bradford and Susquehanna Counties, and plays a key role in helping create jobs and facilitate investment in the region.

While Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry dates back more than 150 years, it wasn’t until approximately three years ago that the Northeastern part of the state began to pique the interest of large multi-national energy companies. The object of their desire? The bountiful supply of natural gas buried deep beneath the earth’s surface in the Marcellus Shale play.

“When it became obvious it was going to be a real force, we decided we had to educate ourselves,” Ventello said. That was roughly two and a half years ago.

Part of the process was reaching out to leaders in Wise County, Texas, where development was already underway in the Barnett Shale play. One of the men Ventello connected with was Kevin Burns, a Wise County commissioner.

“He was able to articulate to us all the things we could anticipate,” the economic developer explained, including both benefits and concerns. According to Ventello, Burns’ advice was spot on.

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