Peterson again vents his anger about region's economic doldrums
The Derrick, 10/9/02 By JUDITH O. ETZEL

A special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted


Congressman John Peterson, a 25-year veteran of elected government service, is revving up a campaign designed to upend the status quo. And while he is running for re-election this year, his mission has less to do with politics than with money.

The object of his ire and the message in his tirade is this region's plummeting economy.
"The economy here is bad and, on a broad spectrum, we are now losing faster than we are gaining. I am convinced that what we are doing to fix it is failing. Now some people think I'm too negative but I will tell you, the facts scare me," said the 64-year-old Peterson in an interview pegged specifically, by him, on the failing economy here.

It is not the first time the Republican has publicly lamented this area's poor economy and aimed most of the blame at several economic development chiefs who, in his opinion, are doing lackluster work.

In August, he surprised the Oil City Rotary Club by zeroing in on what he described as "a deepening economic crisis" here and zinging agency directors for their failure to reverse or even stem that tide.

Peterson, up for re-election this November and facing only token opposition from a Libertarian not predisposed to campaign, is back shadow-boxing with the dismal economic cloud here and he's more churned up now than ever.

His message is direct: This region's economy is failing, due in large measure to a mishmash of agencies waging turf wars. Those agencies, small and large, have failed to devise any workable plans of action and are instead jealously guarding their pots of money. The result has been disastrous, insists Peterson.

"If we don't change what we're doing and start having some successes, you won't have the infrastructure and tax base here to survive. You'll have bankrupt communities. We have to do something drastic very, very soon," Peterson warned.

Peterson said the economy has not soured overnight but the speed of decline has picked up considerably in the past few years.

"We lost steel, oil, glass, coal, all huge losses here. And the bank mergers. We lost jobs here and with that, all that leadership. And then the nail in the coffin was Calumet (at the former Pennzoil refinery in Rouseville). We successfully worked the sale of a major company, salvaged some jobs and then, it's gone," he said.

As businesses have departed, a gaping void has developed in terms of support, he said.

"There is no private sector drive behind economic development here. We need more business emphasis, with more businesses involved. You can't do that if we have few businesses and they are not encouraged to participate," Peterson said.

Peterson lays the blame squarely at the feet of numerous economic development agencies that he suggests are often stodgy, selfish and static.

"They are uncoordinated, they often compete with each other, they don't communicate, they don't have any master plan as to what we should be doing to revitalize our economy. And we are talking serious money here, pots of money, millions of dollars," Peterson said.

He challenged officials in eight western Pennsylvania counties to hire an outsider, Boston-based consultant Brian Bosworth, to evaluate the area's economic health and come up with solutions. The report, pegged as the Bosworth Study, cost $95,000 and will critique economic development efforts in Venango, Clarion, Forest, Crawford, Erie, Lawrence, Mercer and Warren counties. It will be modeled after a similar Bosworth examination of the City of Erie's economic woes.

Peterson expects the study, due out in December, to stir up controversy by consolidating agencies, developing a game plan, and pressing for major changes in how economic development is carried out here.

There are too many economic development agencies and they are tripping over each other, Peterson said.

The litany of those agencies in this immediate area include: Venango Economic Development Corp. in Oil City, Oil City Community Development Corp., the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission in Oil City, the Clarion County Economic Development Corp., Meadville Industrial Commission, Forest County Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, Titusville Redevelopment Authority, Small Business Development Commission, Franklin Industrial and Commercial Development Authority. In addition, several state-run agencies dealing with the same subject are scattered throughout the region.

"These organizations rarely communicate with each other. At the same time, this region is taking it in the neck," Peterson said.

What Peterson hopes the Bosworth Study will show is the need to consolidate and streamline that confused configuration.

"The model we've been following is flawed. I will support funding one economic development agency per county and that organization should be the lead one. And then I want to have all those state and federal agencies work for those county agencies, to become service agencies to assist while letting the county lead the effort," Peterson said. "I think all this makes these people very nervous because this is about change, the reallocation of resources, a plan of action."

Peterson's most pointed criticisms are aimed at agencies in which he perceives there is no plan of action.

"I went to the annual meeting in December of the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, that's our lead economic agency, and they didn't even offer a report of what they did last year or what they planned to do this year. They had entertainment instead. I wanted to get up and say 'am I the only one who feels this urgency?'" Peterson said.

There is no cohesive effort to deal with problems specific to this area, he said, including the need for more technological education, the lack of a good transportation network, and the need for upgrading our infrastructure such as water/sewage lines, utility lines and telecommunication systems.

"We need a plan showing what we need to do, not what the federal or state government thinks we should do. That's the frustration I have, the lack of any plan of action. The state and federal governments are not going to figure out how to solve this for us. What they will do is help us, if we have a plan," Peterson said.

Once the Bosworth Study is released it will require public support to be successful, Peterson said.

"I have high hopes that it will bring an argument of how to implement it, not whether to implement it. The merger of some of these regional agencies will require public support and public interest as we try and make them more efficient and accountable," he said.

The legislator is keenly aware that this area's fortunes have continued to decline during his tenure as a state representative, state senator and now U.S. congressman. He both accepts and challenges the assumption that he could have done more to stop the fall.

"I don't think anybody has worked harder for economic development and further education than I have, especially as I emphasized the need for technical education and rural health care. Do I get any credit, on the other hand, for things that did go right? Either way, I don't care if people want to blame me or thank me because it doesn't matter. I want this system changed and I want to do whatever it takes to stop the decline because we are going down the drain, economically," he said.