MERCER – The ethylene cracker plant now under construction in Potter Township, Beaver County, won’t begin production for almost five years, but Mercer County will have to begin acting now if it hopes to reap economic benefits from the facility, county Commissioner Scott Boyd said.

“The business sector and transportation in our community have a tremendous opportunity,” Boyd said the commissioners’ meeting last week. “But it’s going to take a sense of urgency and commitment.”

All three commissioners and county business leaders spent the morning of Jan. 11 at a forum in Meadville focused on ancillary development stemming from the cracker plant, about 50 highway miles from the Shenango Valley. The forum was sponsored by the Regional Summit on Advancing Petrochemical Industry in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Randy Seitz, president and CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., said his organization is trying to provide the urgency that Boyd was talking about.

“We want to make sure Mercer County is poised and ready to take advantage of the opportunities that may come,” Seitz said.

When the cracker plant begins operating early in the 2020s, it will use liquid byproducts within natural gas to produce polyethylene pellets, which can be directly used in the production of plastic items such as bottles and packaging. Seitz called companies that produce those commodities “low-hanging fruit” in terms of attracting manufacturing facilities – and manufacturing jobs – to Mercer County.

The county, and particularly the Shenango Valley, are connected to Potter Township by rail and by the Interstate 376 corridor, which provides plastic-related industries around the United States with an opportunity to decrease their transportation expenses at a time when gasoline and diesel fuel costs are increasing.

“If you are in the plastics industry and you’re looking to cut your transportation costs, you probably want to be talking to us right now,” he said.

Seitz said Penn-Northwest is launching an effort to get the attention of plastics industry officials, starting with meeting them face-to-face at events such as the National Plastics Exhibition this May in Florida, and two other related trade shows. The agency also is engaging in a digital marketing campaign to promote Mercer County’s unique place in the natural gas industry.

“That will put us in front of plastics companies,” he said.

The county is not only within striking distance for companies looking to use the cracker plant’s finished product, but it’s also active in the extraction of natural gas as a center of the shale gas drilling industry, Seitz said, and a significant producer of tubes for natural gas pipelines, with the Sharon Tube and Wheatland Tube plants.

Finally, Penn-Northwest is working with government officials on the local permitting process to minimize the regulatory obstacles for manufacturers looking to relocate in the county. Toward that end, the county commissioners and state legislators have provided assistance, Seitz said.

Whenever a major manufacturer has planned to relocate in Mercer County, he said the county commissioners have made themselves available.

“We have three commissioners who don’t care about Republican ideas, who don’t care about Democratic ideas,” Seitz said. “They care about bringing in companies that provide jobs, companies that provide family-sustaining jobs.”

For their part, the commissioners vowed to commit themselves to helping Mercer County capitalize on the opportunity provided by the cracker plant during their meeting Thursday, hours after the forum in Meadville.

Commissioner Matt McConnell said local officials would have to take an active part in making that happen.

“I hope we will see some benefit, but I don’t think it will come naturally,” he said.

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