Cultural and economic growth in Venango County will get a boost under a plan developed by the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry and Tourism and Pennsylvania Western University Clarion for the university’s Venango property.

Under the proposal, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education and the Pennsylvania Department of General Services would transfer the Venango location to ORA ownership.

The transfer is subject to authorization by PASSHE’s Board of Governors and legislative approval and would allow for the conveyance of the Venango property to the ORA. The ORA, which manages the Oil Region National Heritage Area, would use the site to further its mission of heritage preservation, economic development, recreation, tourism and arts revitalization.

“The ORA is a ‘best-fit’ for the Venango property,” said John R. Phillips II, alliance president and CEO. “The ORA has consistently supported and partnered with the university over these past decades and has an intimate understanding and genuine interest, perhaps better stated as passion, to see this site continue for the furtherance of our region.”

Enhanced PennWest Student Opportunities

PennWest offers only one program at Venango, an associate degree in nursing, which would move to PennWest Clarion beginning in fall 2024, pending approval from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body for PennWest.

Students in their second year will finish their degree at Venango and gradate in May. First-year students will transition to the Clarion campus.

“This is an exciting plan for the Venango region,” said Dr. R. Lorraine Bernotsky, interim president of PennWest. “If approved, ORA will manage the facilities and resources to the fullest extent. PennWest will retain its employees while continuing to offer our students a top-quality educational experience.”

The 15 faculty previously based at Venango will continue to teach the ASN program courses and clinical experiences. PennWest Clarion has state-of-the-art simulation labs, and students will have access to a greater number of elective courses and extracurricular opportunities.

In addition to faculty, all 12 staff at Venango l will be offered positions at other PennWest locations.

“The commitment to meeting workforce needs in our region remains strong,” said Dr. Deborah Kelly, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. “We will continue to maintain strong relationships with our community partners throughout the region.

The PennWest Clarion – Somerset location, at the Somerset County Education Center, will continue to offer an Associate of Science in Nursing.

Enrollment at Venango has declined from 450 students in fall 2001 to 95 in fall 2023. PennWest expects to realize approximately $1.3 million in annual expenses, as well as forego more than $6 million in necessary maintenance on the site.

Leveraging a Regional Gem

The Venango location has been an essential regional resource for over 60 years, providing job training, continuing education, cultural experiences, historic preservation, recreation and community convocation. Much of that legacy would be preserved under ORA plans.

As a certified economic development organization, the ORA would host job-training programs at Venango and continue to support the Venango Conservation Hall of Fame established in Rhoades Center. It would also support and promote the Barbara Morgan Harvey Center for the Study of Oil Heritage in Charles L. Suhr Library.

Rep. R. Lee James, from Pennsylvania’s 64th Legislative District, and Sen. Scott E. Hutchinson, from Pennsylvania’s 21st Senatorial District, applaud the ORA’s plans.

Hutchinson sponsored a bill in 2016 to establish the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Development Advisory Council, which is charged with promoting the long-term viability of the conventional oil and gas industry, an integral part of the region’s economy.

James’ priorities include protecting the environmental resources in the area while encouraging economic growth.

“The ORA proposal is a win for the region,” Hutchinson said. “Acquiring the Venango property will increase the visibility of the organization and enhance their efforts to promote tourism, business and industry in Venango County.”

"As a graduate of Clarion University, it saddens me to have witnessed the decline of student enrollment over the past twenty years in western Pennsylvania,” James said. “The Venango campus is the oldest regional campus in the State System of Higher Education. From the peak enrollment of 450 students, the current number is down by an unsustainable 80% today. We must take steps to prepare for future needs. I believe our best option is with the management expertise at Oil Region Alliance in Oil City. The alliance has the resources to promote Venango campus to potential businesses that are looking for a turn-key facility. The campus setting would be attractive to a teaching institution but also be inclusive to business development opportunities.”