BETHANY - From housing to street paving, Greene County, Pa., Commissioner Pam Snyder says the oil and gas industry has been a game changer for her Western Pennsylvania constituency.
Snyder, a three-time commissioner, said her county was "no stranger to extractive industries" even before drilling arrived on their doorstep. That doesn't mean they were anywhere close to being prepared for what the shale industry brought to their community, she said.
"Coal mining has been alive and vibrant in our county for more than 100 years," she said. "Greene County is home to the largest producing coal mine in the free world ... and the largest exporter of coal to china in North America, so we're no stranger to extractive industry. However, when Marcellus shale hit Greene County, were we ready? No."
ADDRESSES COUNCIL — Greene County, Pa., Commissioner Pam Snyder says shale development has brought challenges as well as opportunities to her community. Snyder was at Bethany College’s Mountainside Conference Center last week to address the West Virginia Regional Planning & Development Council. -- Linda Harris
Snyder, invited to address the West Virginia Regional Planning & Development Council's annual conference last week at Bethany College's Mountainside Conference Center, said one of the first and smartest things they did was form the Tri-County Oil & Gas Expo Committee, which has hosted various expos geared to landowners, business networking and jobs.
"That really helped us stay ahead of the curve," she said. "The expos helped us bring the public along with us and stay ahead of (potential pitfalls)."
Snyder said the shale boom has brought many challenges, but also enormous opportunity: For the first quarter of 2012, for instance, unemployment was 5.9 percent and sales tax revenue jumped more than 30 percent, second highest growth among Pennsylvania's 67 counties.
"We've always been known as the 'poverty county,' we had a terrible unemployment rate - when I became a commissioner it was in double digits," she said. "Now, we have so many opportunities. Greene County has the opportunity to increase our tax base and provide jobs" so our people don't need to leave Greene County to find work.
"Our biggest challenge right now is housing and industrial property," she said. "We have companies knocking on our door telling us they need 35 acres - we can't find 35 acres. Every nook and cranny is rented, every hotel is booked. We have two new hotels under construction."
She said out-of-state workers aren't much of a problem any more. "When the industry first hit, all we heard about was how they had license plates from Oklahoma, from Texas, from Louisiana. They're still there, but the influx of out-of-state workers we're seeing now is more about pipeline construction. The industry is hiring locally."
Snyder said her biggest regret is that they didn't foresee the demand for developable sites. "Had we known this was going to happen, I would have had our county's industrial development authority go out and buy up every acre of ground they could for an industrial park," she said. "Nothing makes me sadder than to lose out on opportunity. We have companies that want to be in Greene County and can't, because they can't find the right parcel of ground so they're going to a neighboring county instead."
But she said there have been some unexpected bonuses: The energy industry tends to be generous in supporting community groups and activities. And when they're done drilling a particular area, they go back and redo the roads that were impacted.
"In my township, the backroads are nicer now than they were when they started," she said. "They're building roads up to PennDOT specs; a lot of times townships that had gravelled roads now have blacktopped roads."
She said the experience has been transformative.
"There are certain parts of the county where it's evident, especially in rural parts of the county, that the only activity going on is drilling," she said.
"If we were going to be like we were before and never change, nobody would have jobs. There'd be no prosperity, our kids would all move away because there was nothing for them. Our grandkids wouldn't be living next door. My vision is that I want kids to have the opportunity to stay in Greene County. If they want to leave, fine. But if they want to raise their family in Greene County, I want them to have a job and a good quality of life."