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Penn State’s Partnership With City a Symbol of ‘Hope, Commitment’

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 05, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Penn State Greater Allegheny Chancellor Jacqueline Edmondson, state Sen. Jim Brewster, Penn State University President Eric Barron and McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko during Wednesday's ribbon-cutting at the Mon Valley LaunchBox, located at the former YWCA on Ninth Avenue. (Submitted photo courtesy state Sen. Jim Brewster)

There was a ribbon-cutting Wednesday for Penn State's "Mon Valley LaunchBox," even though it's not really a physical place, said Aaron Whigham, manager of strategic initiatives for the university's Greater Allegheny Campus.

It's more of an idea, an initiative and a spirit of collaboration between the campus and the McKeesport area, he said Wednesday.

"We have made a concerted effort to actually become more intentional in our efforts in the community," said Whigham, who coordinates the Mon Valley LaunchBox along with Eric Ewell, Greater Allegheny's director of continuing education.

"This has been a collective effort," Whigham said. "We're not looking to be a savior, but we are looking to provide resources to make the area that we're in stronger."

Penn State President Eric Barron joined Greater Allegheny Chancellor Jacqueline Edmondson, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, state Sen. Jim Brewster, state Rep. Austin Davis and other university and local officials during the ribbon-cutting at the former YWCA of McKeesport on Ninth Avenue.

About 125 people attended.

Penn State has 21 "LaunchBoxes" across Pennsylvania, located near its commonwealth campuses. The LaunchBoxes --- part of the university's "Invent Penn State" program, created in 2015 --- are designed to connect students with career opportunities, and business owners with the university's resources.

When the program started, Barron said, the first "LaunchBox" was little more than "some folding chairs (and) bad coffee." But it also had passionate "Penn Staters," local business leaders, elected officials and friends, he said.

"They saw the potential for economic development and student career success, and they worked to realize that vision," Barron said.

Although the LaunchBoxes at each Penn State campus are different, they all "share a common mission," he said, "to inspire and advance innovation and entrepreneurship, and to help transform great ideas into viable products and business opportunities."

More than 125 people attended a ribbon-cutting for the Mon Valley LaunchBox in McKeesport. (Submitted photo courtesy state Sen. Jim Brewster)

Systemwide, Barron said, Penn State's LaunchBoxes have so far supported more than 2,000 community entrepreneurs and 325 new businesses or products. About 5,000 students, faculty and staff have participated in activities organized by the LaunchBoxes.

The Mon Valley LaunchBox had a "soft opening" in 2017 and has already helped to incubate several start-up businesses in McKeesport, Edmondson said, including Vicky’s Soul Food Grill, Granny’s Kitchen, the Unique Boutique, Simplicity Event Planning, the KL Experience and Diversity Movers.

The former YWCA also has hosted a number of jazz concerts, she said.

"But as I tell my staff every day, we are just getting started," Edmondson said.

The Mon Valley LaunchBox is a symbol of "vision, commitment and resilience," she said. "It is about making a difference in the lives of people who have been left behind by a post-industrial economy that ravaged this region over three decades ago.

"This space is about realizing social and economic change, and most importantly, it is about hope," Edmondson said.

She thanked Whigham and Ewell as well as other Penn State Greater Allegheny faculty and staff, including Erica Willis, Erica Tachoir, Siobhan Brooks, Mylisha Burns and Johnathan White, for their efforts to establish the LaunchBox.

(Submitted photo courtesy Penn State Greater Allegheny)

Edmondson also thanked Cherepko and city employees. McKeesport owns the former YWCA and is allowing Penn State to use the second floor rent-free.

"Mayor Cherepko’s vision of McKeesport Rising is inspirational, and some may say against the odds, but I know he will never give up on his city, its great people, and the potential that is here – and neither will we," Edmondson said.

All of the help provided to businesses through the LaunchBox is free, and has included advice donated by local attorneys, marketing and accounting experts, Ewell said.

Penn State also has tried not to create a lot of obstacles such as forms and paperwork before people can get help, he said, but they've also tried to be truthful with potential entrepreneurs.

"There are things that we can't do, and we're not here to waste anyone's time," Ewell said.

Barron's visit to campus to participate in the ribbon-cutting was a great boost to the team's morale and an endorsement of their efforts so far, he said.

"For him to come to McKeesport to be with us means a great deal, and it makes us very proud of what we've accomplished here with help and assistance of the community," Ewell said.

Cherepko said Wednesday he thinks the LaunchBox is off to a good start, and that most importantly, it will be sustainable.

"I think Penn State is in this to stay," he said. "Dr. Edmondson, I can't say enough about her. From day one, since she's taken over as chancellor, she's been nothing but energetic and enthusiastic. She not only means what she says, she follows through ... when we talk about 'working together for a better McKeesport,' this partnership truly exemplifies what that means."

Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published September 05, 2019.

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