CRANBERRY TWP — As they sat around a table together, members of the Butler County Growth Collaborative recently discussed the concept of the American Dream and what it meant for them.
According to Mark Gordon, chief of economic development and planning for the county, the realization came quickly that the details of that dream might have changed over the years.
To figure out how that differs from a younger demographic — from high school or college to those just beginning their careers — the group created a survey asking what a 21st century American Dream looks like and what was meaningful to them.
“The American Dream to us might have been that home in the suburbs — hence, Butler County,” he said. “We didn't really hear about the big house in the suburbs or the three to four acres of grass to take care of.”
Instead, the focus was on walkable communities with recreation space. It was also on multifamily homes that were affordable in community hubs, allowing individuals to live and work in the same location.
Gathering and putting that data into action is one of many focuses for the Growth Collaborative, which formally kicked off Friday during the Community Development Corporation of Butler County's annual meeting at the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry Township.
Gordon told the crowd of business leaders from around the county that the idea for the group began a decade ago, and was revisited in 2014. A unified plan was created, but quickly became “bookshelf material,” he said.
In 2016, commissioners Kevin Boozel, Kim Geyer and Leslie Osche revived the plan, believing it had merit, Gordon said. He said initial conversations focused on how the group — consisting of such entities as the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, the Housing Authority of Butler County, Butler County Chamber of Commerce, Community Development Corporation of Butler County, BC3, Butler Transit Authority, Cranberry Township and the Workforce Investment Board — could work together. Setting a tone and culture was key, he added.
“It is a culture that embraced problem solving, it was a culture that embraced people, leveraging our strengths and avoiding duplication of efforts,” he said.
He said the group's mission is to preserve and empower economic prosperity in the county, and is guided by three principles: collaborate, diversify and connect. According to Osche, the goals also include attracting new business while maintaining and developing existing ones. She said part of that is ensuring a skilled workforce is ready, and that infrastructure needs can be met.
Additionally, Osche said she hopes the group can encourage new ideas and concepts.
“When you have that dream or that idea or that vision ... of something that can drive this community forward, you're going to turn around and find this entire team behind you,” she said.
Gordon said that while Friday was the formal introduction of the group, the guiding principles of the plan have already paid dividends.
He cited the county's sixth-place ranking nationally in job growth, and a GDP of $382 million in 2018. He said from 2017 onward, $57.5 million in infrastructure has been brought to the region.
“This unified plan is really actually working,” he said. “It is in play. (The group) is alive and well.”
He said moving forward, the group will host work sessions and business roundtables and set measurable targets. He said projects will be prioritized based on those conversations.
According to Boozel, the group's efforts signify a marked change from less than a decade ago, when Butler County had unemployment rates around 9 percent. The lack of jobs forced many to leave the area to seek a better life.
Now, the unemployment rate hovers around 3.3 percent, setting the pace in the region. That presents new challenges, although Boozel isn't complaining.
“We have gone from that to a growing business sector clamoring for additional infrastructure, to a housing market that can barely keep up, to roads and transportation demands,” he said. “It is official that we have more jobs than we have employable people in Butler County. That's a new struggle for us. That's a good struggle to have.”