New Castle News

March 15, 2013

Working regionally stressed to chamber

Lugene Hudson
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Constructing a successful community is the goal of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce in the year ahead.

During the 110th annual chamber dinner Wednesday night, the theme of “Lawrence County 2.0: Strategies for Building an Effective Community” was introduced.

Table centerpieces were castles made of wooden blocks, which represented New Castle. Each castle was different and the challenge for those attending was to build their version of the perfect city, adding blocks for areas considered vital such as education, arts and recreation.

According to Bob McCracken, executive director of the chamber, Lawrence and Mercer counties must work together regionally in the future and compete as a broader business community against competitor regions in efforts to attract and retain businesses.

The keynote speaker reiterated the goal of regionalization.

John Longstreet, president and chief executive officer of Quaker Steak and Lube, started out as a busboy at the Sharon restaurant. He went on to become vice president of operations of Intercontinental Hotels Group and now oversees operations of the restaurant chain.

Longstreet also served two terms as mayor of Plano, Texas. During his leadership, the city grew from 50,000 to 250,000 residents and more than 50 new companies relocated there. At that time, Plano was also ranked one of the fastest growing and safest cities in the nation.

The Sharon native, who moved back to Hermitage in 2009, said, “There are lots of opportunities in western Pennsylvania, but we have a long way to go.

“How can a guy from Plano, Texas, possibly compare it to Lawrence County?” he asked. “Forty years ago, Plano was cotton fields and had 10,000 people.”

Businesses started coming in, which spun off to building other businesses, schools and recreational venues, Longstreet said.

“There’s no reason why we can’t do what Plano did.”

Finding solutions is the difference between success and failure, he explained.

Cities also need incentives and “a big win,” which, in Plano, was J.C. Penney moving its offices there from Manhattan.

“All of a sudden, it was legitimate to be in Plano.”

Longstreet, who walked the neighborhoods while campaigning, said that finding out what was on the minds of constituents and connecting with citizens is most important.

“You need to run a city like a business. As hotel manager, I knew a guest is either always right or we’re going to treat him like he’s right.”

As mayor, he learned how neighboring areas must work as one.

“Regionalization is absolutely critical. Lawrence and Mercer counties must pull together.”

And to thrive, a community must prioritize, the speaker pointed out.

“The number one priority is safety. There must also be mobility and quality of life, but the biggest factor of economic development is schools, schools, schools. If there aren’t good schools, you don’t have a chance.”

Longstreet explained that a school superintendent once said that leaders dream more than others think is possible.

“That’s a good analogy to deal with the challenges facing this area. We have to look everywhere for new ideas.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com.)