At Kinzua Bridge

Ta Enos, right, CEO and founder of the PA Wilds Center, explains the first-of-its-kind PA Wilds Conservation Shop at the Kinzua Bridge State Park to Gov. Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf in 2017.

The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship Inc., a regional nonprofit, has been awarded an $860,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to accelerate the growth of the Pennsylvania Wilds entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The three-year grant, which will be matched with $277,500 in local investment, will expand market access for businesses in the Pennsylvania Wilds via an e-commerce maker marketplace, and expansion of the PA Wilds Conservation Shops — brick and mortar gift shops that sell regionally-made products at state parks through a public-private partnership with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

The grant will support the opening of a second flagship location and also transition ShopthePAWilds.com to a maker marketplace so local companies selling products and services there can reach new markets and keep a larger cut of every sale.

The EDA investment will also support continued growth of the Center’s entrepreneurial network, the Wilds Cooperative of PA, through expanded education, resources and networking opportunities for small businesses and other community and economic development stakeholders.

The Center’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is differentiated from others by the PA Wilds regional brand and a strategy that balances economic growth with conservation stewardship principles. Nature tourism and outdoor recreation are a billion-dollar economic driver for communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds, buoyed by the region’s more than 2 million acres of public land, and intrinsically tied to its working forests and forest products industry.

“As a lifelong resident of rural Pennsylvania and an avid outdoorsman, I can’t stress the importance of the PA Wilds Center enough,” said Congressman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. “This grant is incredibly well deserved, and I know it will help the Center carry out their mission of conservation and economic development in rural communities throughout the Pennsylvania Wilds.”

Dozens of local, regional and state partners have been involved in the Pennsylvania Wilds revitalization effort over its 15-year history, and Ta Enos, CEO and Founder of the PA Wilds Center, thanked several of them Friday.

“Federal grant programs are very competitive,” Enos said. “The PA Wilds Planning Team, North Central and Northwest development commissions, our state partners DCNR and the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), Rep. Glenn Thompson’s office and a lot of small local businesses threw their shoulder to the wheel and helped us get the application the final mile. We are grateful for their support.

“Our region is the size of Massachusetts and has seen decades of divestment and population decline that we are trying to recover from,” Enos said. “The Wilds work is an important regional strategy that is helping fuel our comeback. We applaud EDA for investing with us.”

The Pennsylvania Wilds has the greatest concentration of public land in the Commonwealth, including eight state forests, 29 state parks, 50 state game lands, and PA’s only National Forest (the Allegheny National Forest). It is also home to two National Wild & Scenic Rivers, the largest wild elk herd in the northeast and some of the darkest night skies in the country. It is one of the largest blocks of green between New York City and Chicago. The region’s rugged physical features are often obstacles to economic development and broadband and transportation infrastructure, but they have also shaped the region’s culture and identity in positive ways, cultivating an independent, entrepreneurial spirit and a common sense conservation ethic.

This EDA investment builds upon major state infrastructure investments in the region to grow the $1.8 billion nature and heritage tourism economy in the Pennsylvania Wilds, such as the Elk Country Visitor Center, Kinzua Bridge visitor center, Wildlife Center at Sinnemahoning State Park, and PA Lumber Museum, as well as many locally-driven recreation and heritage projects region-wide.

This EDA investment also leverages past investments in the PA Wilds Center including:

· 2016: a $500,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission through the POWER Initiative to assist with nature tourism cluster development in the Pennsylvania Wilds;

· 2018: a $98,000 Rural Business Development Grant from USDA Rural Development for the development of the PA Wilds Media Lab;

· 2018 – 2019: a $151,992 grant from West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund (WPPSEF) to support an energy assessment and the development of the PA Wilds Media Lab to pilot models for main street revitalization and energy sustainability;

· Additional funding support for the PA Wilds Media Lab from Collins Companies Foundation and Northwest Charitable Foundation;

· Multiple grants from the DCNR C2P2 Partnership Grant Program;

· Funding and technical support from the DCED;

· Funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) for professional development geared toward creative industries.

The PA Wilds Center, the state’s external lead nonprofit for the PA Wilds work, helps to spearhead and coordinate public and private investments in the landscape. These projects advance key business and community development strategies that are central to the nonprofit’s mission integrating conservation and economic development to strengthen and inspire communities in the PA Wilds.

Enos, the chief grants strategist and writer for the PA Wilds Center, said it is great that after 15 years of planning and work by so many local organizations and individuals, and state and regional partners, that the Pennsylvania Wilds is being recognized as a regional investment strategy nationally.

“At the federal level, the Appalachian Regional Commission has been a longtime supporter of the Wilds work, but in the last few years we’ve partnered with USDA, and now EDA,” Enos said. “And it isn’t just us — we’ve written many support letters for locally-driven projects across the region that are positioning themselves as part of this regional strategy, and many have gotten funded through state and federal programs. It is exciting to see. And it is not just government grants. We are seeing private sector and foundation investment around projects. This is critical and needed. This is generational work, and we are trying to do it in a way that stays true to our roots. That takes time and resources and a lot of people pulling in the same direction. The whole premise behind the Wilds — from its earliest days back when all the county commissioners signed the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement to work together — is ‘there’s more we can do together’ as a rural region. That can be really hard to pull off in a large economically-distressed rural landscape, but our region is doing it. Everyone does not always agree on everything, but we’ve stayed at the table. And that strategy and stick-to-it-ness is really starting to pay off for our communities in a lot of different ways.”

“Access to capital is a real issue in rural America, and the Pennsylvania Wilds,” said Kristin Lewis, executive vice president of economic development for the PA Wilds Center. “Public and private investments like these increase economic opportunity and stability for our entire region. Small businesses are the engine for the US economy and job growth, but are also vital to quality of life in small towns. Many are surprised to hear that virtually all businesses in the Pennsylvania Wilds are considered small businesses, even our larger manufacturer employers. The PA Wilds Center helps to spearhead and increase public and private investments so we can stay competitive in an increasingly demanding global economy, while also keeping our communities as vibrant places to live, visit and invest.”

PA Wilds Center’s goal is to grow its commerce platform into one that eventually helps businesses in the region move $4 million in local products and services annually, said Abbi Peters, who oversees the Wilds Cooperative and the commerce platform as the Center’s Executive Vice President for Creative Commerce.

“The majority of our creative makers and entrepreneurs live and create in towns with populations of less than 5,000 people. Without sophisticated e-commerce or access to retail distribution, our makers are limited to their local consumer base. Many of our businesses even struggle with access to broadband connectivity. Our e-commerce platform and brick and mortar gift shops will help open up regional, national and even global markets to rural businesses in the Pennsylvania Wilds. These opportunities allow our business owners to maintain a close-knit community lifestyle and to build local wealth by accessing larger markets and customers from more densely populated regions,” said Peters.

“The Trump Administration is committed to not only retaining jobs in this country, but also to taking action that creates new opportunities for Americans,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Dr. John Fleming. “This investment will provide a virtual platform for the sale and distribution of manufactured items on the internet, expand the number of businesses participating in the maker marketplace and provide technical assistance to local entrepreneurs and small manufacturers.”

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