By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Charting a path for Mercer County’s future will depend largely on the yet-to-be seen local impact of the oil and gas boom, but county officials are determined to throw their support behind manufacturing, agricultural, retail and tourism developers whose growth can make all the difference.
Asked about goals for 2014, Commissioner Matt McConnell said planning is contingent on what happens with the county’s population. Currently at about 116,000, McConnell said he doesn’t know if the decline in population will continue, or if the oil and gas activity will bring in more people.
“With a cracker plant 35 miles south, is that an impact we’ll see five years from now? Twenty years? Are we going to grow services with our current tax base?”
“And what if the population continues to shrink? In a tough economy you tend to need more jails and judicial systems,” he said. “We’re not sure what direction we’re going to go, but we need to be prepared in either direction, so that we are not just reacting or shooting from the hip.”
Commissioner Chairman John Lechner said the three members of the board have a “limited” role in bringing economic development to the county, but believe they can strongly support those who do take the lead.
“To have significant growth, we need a combination of manufacturing, agriculture, retail and tourism spots. We need the jobs that pay the salaries that can sustain families. We’re counting on the tourism folks to make the county more of a destination.”
“We’re not an economic development agency, but we have ways to support it,” he said.
To start the year with some good news, Lechner said, the plan to bring sewers to the Interstate 80 and U.S. Route 19 interchange is “past the point of no return” and construction should begin in early 2015. Often touted as one of the prime pieces of real estate in the county, the interchange has long lacked the infrastructure to attract developers. The sewers are the first part of the plan that will eventually include other utilities in the area now known as “the gravel pit.”
The county is also taking steps to move forward electronically with services it offers to county residents, including dealings they have with the treasurer, recorder and tax offices. McConnell said the electronic gathering of data that will eventually be able to be posted online may save “some foot traffic” to the courthouse by allowing residents to access what they need via the Internet.
“That way we can keep taxes as low as possible by controlling costs,” he added.
Lechner said there have been discussions about long-range goals and strategic planning regarding capital improvements that may have to be made to the courthouse and other buildings in the next four or five years as well as keeping business operations current with up-to-date technology.