Indiana County Chamber of Commerce

Indiana County Chamber of Commerce

Indiana, PA


CARLY MORGAN

STAFF WRITER


For Jim Struzzi, President of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce in Indiana, Pennsylvania, determining how to market his community was a matter of recalling what it was that made him and his family decide to settle down there themselves.

Struzzi was working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) when his job brought him from Indiana to Pittsburgh. So, he and his wife moved to Bridgeville, a borough in Allegheny County just outside of Pittsburgh, in 2006, “But we loved Indiana County,” Struzzi recalled. “We found ourselves coming back here every weekend.”

Consequently, Struzzi and his wife decided to head back to Indiana County in order to raise their family. And it’s that experience that Struzzi is able to draw upon in his job at the chamber, as he works to promote the region and attract businesses and residents to the area.

“We really try to promote Indiana County along the lines of what brought me back,” Struzzi explained. “It’s a great place to raise your family. It’s a great quality of life—parks; trails; clean, safe downtowns; an eclectic mix of arts and culture. It’s really that wholesome sort of life experience that [young families] love.”

In what is perhaps a perfect example of art imitating life, family-friendly Indiana County is also known for being the birthplace of Jimmy Stewart, America’s Favorite Everyman. “I know he’s a little bit ‘older generation’ at this point,” Struzzi said, “but [he] really embodies the kind of character the community has.” Struzzi noted that a major part of Stewart’s continued legacy is the values that he had—his military service (he was a decorated general), his humility, and his morality. “I think that really is what this community tries to be,” he said.

While there is always a focus on attracting young families to the area, the Indiana County Chamber also works hard to attract new businesses. The Chamber board is quite diverse in its leadership: there are heads of industry, from prominent local banks and healthcare providers; the area’s state representative; county commissioners; all sorts of different people bringing different perspectives to the chamber’s leadership. But, Struzzi noted, “When we’re trying to attract businesses, we’re all on the same page about what kinds of businesses we want to attract, what we want our economy to look like, and what kind of brand we want to have for the county,” he explained. “It all fits together.”

Currently, Indiana County is the headquarters location for several major financial institutions, which help draw young, white collar professionals to the area. There are also several new business parks and retail locations ready for development, including the 200-acre Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park. For a long time, however, the economic vitality of Indiana County, which sits right in the center of the Marcellus Shale basin, was inextricably linked with the health of the energy sector. When gas prices tanked a couple of years ago, the local economy too a bit of a hit. So now, in order to mitigate the economic impact of a fledgling energy sector, the Indiana County Chamber has refocused its attention on bringing manufacturing jobs to the area, as well as expanding the community’s retail base.

“We have a retail base here,” Struzzi said. “We have Walmart, Lowe’s, those kinds of things. But we don’t have everything here that people want. And our chamber is trying to reach out to those hidden gaps that cause people to drive elsewhere to shop.” Filling those retail gaps, Struzzi noted, means keeping people in Indiana County instead of having them go online, or to a neighboring community, in order to buy things. By expanding the retail base, local dollars stay in the local economy.

At the heart of that local economy the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), which Struzzi described as “a backbone of the community.” Home to roughly 13,000 students, IUP is not only a financial asset—for every 100 students, about $1 million is injected into the local economy annually—but also a fundamental part of Indiana County’s culture and community dynamic. For instance, IUP has a robust art department, so there are often shows to see on campus. (Struzzi noted that the university has even brought Broadway shows to the area in the past.) Also, IUP has 19 different Division II sports teams, so if you’re not into theater, you can always catch a game instead.

“People come from other areas to see the sporting events, to see the shows,” Struzzi said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of activity that occurs on a campus that large. It’s really woven into the community.” Not to mention, of course, that just the number of students in the area alone is enough to shape the overall dynamic of Indiana County: “There’s a lot of energy when you have that many college kids in your community,” Struzzi noted.

In terms of the rest of the Indiana County economy, Struzzi has also done his part to transform the relationship between the Indiana County Chamber and its member businesses.

“Before I came to this chamber, the documentation for membership wasn’t where it needed to be,” Struzzi explained. “We had to clean up a lot of information. There were a lot of members that hadn’t paid dues for some time.”

So Struzzi and his staff (which, at that time, included only a part-time assistant) sorted through all of that information and established the actual number of real, paying members to be about 570. That was in 2013, and the number has since grown to 663.

The limited documentation, however, was perhaps only a symptom of a greater underlying problem: there was not a lot of communication going on between the chamber and its members. But Struzzi was quick to remedy that.

The Indiana County Chamber now sends out a weekly email to all of its members. They’re active on social media. They even published a membership guide to help explain all of the benefits of a chamber membership to its member businesses. And, to help drum up business-to-business communication, Struzzi increased the number of networking opportunities, from one Business After Hours per month, to a Business After Hours every two weeks, on top of breakfast networking sessions, lunch networking sessions, happy hours, and a young professional’s’ group that hosts its own social mixers and educational events.

Struzzi recalled that when he first came to the chamber, “A lot of the chamber members didn’t understand … the benefits of being a member. [They wondered], ‘Why am I writing a check to you every year for dues, when I’m not getting anything in return?’” Which made Struzzi realize that, “first and foremost, I had to tell these businesses, ‘Hey, you may not realize it, but your chamber membership includes this and this and this. And these things can help your business grow; help you be more of a presence in the community; help you make business-to-business connections.’”

The increased communication between the Indiana County Chamber and its members is a definite point of pride for Struzzi, but one of his proudest accomplishments since coming to the Indiana County Chamber has more to do with remembering past community members who helped shape Indiana County into what it is today.

“Before I came here, they did not have any way to recognize and remember business leaders in the community,” Struzzi said. “So last year, we created, for the first time, the Indiana County Business Hall of Fame.”

According to its website, the Indiana County Business Hall of Fame “recognizes past and present business leaders for their lifetime achievements in promoting and advancing the economic climate of Indiana County.” The Hall of Fame is permanently housed at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Campus (which also happens to be where the college’s Division II basketball team plays its home games). Struzzi said the community reception to the Hall of Fame has been outstanding so far.

I asked Struzzi what made him decide that the Business Hall of Fame was going to be one of the projects he took on as chamber president. “It was something that the chamber board had been discussing for many years, and it just never came to fruition,” he responded. “When I came on board, we just made it a priority.”

That answer effectively summarizes the general role that Struzzi and the Indiana County Chamber have carved out for themselves in the community: figure out what’s missing, and then fill in the associated gaps.

For more information on the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, visit www.indianacountychamber.com


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