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March 14, 2013

Cambria to form authority: Officials pave way for trade zone

EBENSBURG — The county commissioners took the first step toward creating a Cambria County Economic Development Authority, part of their initiative to oversee development of a foreign trade zone.

Commissioners Douglas Lengenfelder, the board chairman, and Mark Wissinger voted in favor of the action, and Thomas Chernisky, the Democratic minority commissioner, opposed it.

Details such as time line, staff and structure of the authority are yet to be ironed out, Lengenfelder said at Thursday’s meeting. He said he’s pushing the process forward as quickly as possible.

Formation of the authority follows a February trip to Argentina by Lengenfelder and a delegation of businessmen to pursue the possibility of bottling Argentine wine in Cambria County. The group returned with a letter of intent from Tapiz vineyards, which plans to begin bottling wine in Richland Township within a few months.

The wine business should be only the start of economic development initiatives, Lengenfelder said Thursday. He and others are talking to representatives of Bulgaria about possible benefits from the foreign trade zone but declined to disclose details of the talks.

Establishing a foreign trade zone would allow Argentine vineyards to save money by sending barrels of wine here for bottling and distribution by local companies, Lengenfelder said recently. The zone would enable the county to tap into federal programs encouraging foreign businessmen to invest in the area by providing tax breaks and other incentives in a designated location.

For the past few months, the trade zone initiative has been handled by the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority, of which Lengenfelder is a member.

“The airport authority felt the trade zone had grown larger than they could deal with ...,” Lengenfelder said Thursday. “The members of the authority feel an overarching authority was a better way to go.”

The airport authority was brought into the trade zone picture several months ago when the commissioners gave it $20,000 to to launch the project. In January, the commissioners approved a $150,000 grant to fund the project this year.

In mid-February, airport authority members and Lengenfelder got into an intense discussion over the possible cost of creating the trade zone.

Chairman James Loncella said Thursday the airport authority remains 100 percent behind the concept, as members have been from the beginning, but the success of the Argentina trip was greater than anyone expected.

“This turned into something bigger than they had hoped for,” Loncella said.

The airport authority agrees with  formation of the economic development authority, Loncella said. However, the need for immediate action showed the project would require more focus than the authority, a group of volunteers, has the capability to provide, he said.

In opposing the motion, Chernisky said the county already has organizations in place that could handle the foreign trade zone. He cited Johns­town Area Regional Industries as a possible vehicle for the efforts.

Lengenfelder said he has spoken to JARI for almost two years but it does not appear to be a match, and the Cambria County Industrial Development Authority is not chartered to handle economic development.

Meanwhile, county Controller Ed Cernic expressed frustration Thursday over what he views as a “rush” to get a $75,000 check for the trade zone at a time when the county was unable to pay all of its bills.

The check has not been cashed.

While the money – half of the total budget targeted for the initiative for the year – will remain available, Lengenfelder said Cernic should void the check.

Legal requirements to form an authority likely will take a few months, county Solicitor Thomas Leiden said.

Law requires that such an authority have at least five members, Leiden said.

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