Published first on the Progress News, January 4, 2021

Last week, we explored how the ORA has adapted and evolved over the last decade and a half.  To start off the New Year, we’re looking forward.  Organizational redevelopment never truly ends, after all, and CEO John Phillips stressed the importance of being willing to “get out of your own bubble” to see what’s going on in the world around you and how it relates to your work.  “Change is inevitable,” he remarked.  “You have to get on board with change.” 

To help with that process, the ORA periodically undertakes a Strategic Plan update, bringing in an impartial, objective perspective to see how the organization can become more effective and efficient.   The current update – expected to wrap up by the spring – is particularly important, Phillips noted, because the ORA is “going to the next level” in rural development, focusing its efforts on comprehensive projects that maximize regional assets and bring people together.  “We’re taking the tough projects, and doing them.  We all wake up every morning thinking that we’re going to do the impossible!” 

Mindful of the challenges and opportunities exposed by the past year, Phillips sees the ORA as a support nexus for regional redevelopment.  “We’re not alone,” he emphasized.  “We have a lot of like-minded partners, and we’re constantly looking at how to get stuff done that moves the needle forward, to make a better quality of life and attract people here.”  Many industries, especially hospitality and tourism, have been hit hard by COVID, and analysts expect a full recovery to take up to five years.  “It’s going to be pushing a rock up a hill,” Phillips stated, “and we’re going to need to help push the rock.”

Key to our recovery will be a celebration of local resources, heritage, and potential, and the ORA plans to concentrate on projects such as brownfield remediation, development of new outdoor recreation assets, and expanded tourism outreach.  “The Oil Region is being discovered by folks who might not otherwise have discovered us,” Phillips said, and we have a unique selling point in our current reality.  “You can naturally social-distance,” he noted, “because you’re outdoors and utilizing the natural wonders that God has given us.”

Specific recreation projects Phillips has his sights on include a robust ATV trail linking the Oil Region to other parts of western PA and NY, bringing a new, exciting amenity to locals and tourists alike, as well as expanding access to cycling by completing the Erie-to-Pittsburgh trail and supporting the growing e-bike industry.  He is also excited to find partners willing to invest in a major zipline attraction in the region. 

None of us know what 2021 will bring, but Phillips is confident the ORA can handle whatever the future throws at us.  “I think we’ve been pretty darn significant so far, but we’re really only getting started.  Every day you wake up, there’s more to do.  You never get to the end.  There’s always the next project; there’s always the next challenge; there’s always the unexpected.  Together, all of us can get these amazing projects accomplished for the benefit of generations to come.”