For nine years, part of John Dubnansky's role, as Cambria County's grants facilitator, included working to secure funding for economic development in Johnstown.
In the process, he created professional and personal connections with local elected officials and business leaders, while making the state aware of the issues facing the financially distressed municipality.
Now, the Westmont resident hopes to use that knowledge and experience in an even more direct way to hopefully benefit the city. On Wednesday, during a regular City Council meeting, City Manager George Hayfield announced he has selected Dubnansky to become the city's new economic development director.
“What we have to do is build the future of Johnstown, and we're in the process of doing that,” said Dubnansky during an interview at Press Bistro prior to the meeting. “I've always personally had an interest to see what can I do to rely upon my background, my education as a regional urban planner, and my ability to secure financial resources as I've done as the county's facilitator and focus all those resources on one area – in this case, the city of Johnstown – and see how much impact I could really have on this area and see how we could make this a prosperous city once again.”
Dubnansky plans to immediately give the county notice and then begin work with the city later this month. He will join City Hall after helping secure more than $14 million in funding – spread throughout upwards of 180 projects – for the county.
“I'll be leaving a job I love and appreciate all the support the county commissioners have given me over the past nine years,” Dubnansky said. “But I'm looking forward to this new opportunity and to see how I can help the city of Johnstown grow into the future.”
Dubnansky said some of his first goals will be to help Intuit, an international financial software company, continue its mission to promote local business and community enhancement and to work with the Conemaugh Health System and Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership to find an operator for the historic – but long dormant – State Theater on Main Street.
He hopes, if successful, those initiatives can continue development in the city that, in recent years, has included the opening of new businesses downtown and the repurposing of previously abandoned structures, such as the opening of the Center for Metal Arts and Hanging Gardens on old Bethlehem Steel land.
“Really, over the past two years, we've really seen a turn here locally in the city of Johnstown's economy, more businesses popping up,” said Dubnansky, 44, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate who grew up in Cramer. “Now just seems like the perfect time for me to assume the role as the city of Johnstown's economic development director, so that I can help manage these efforts and these projects even better from City Hall.”
Dubnansky is taking over the economic development position in a municipality that joined Pennsylvania's Act 47 program for distressed municipalities more than a quarter-century ago, seen its population cut in half – to under 20,000 with one-third living in poverty – during his lifetime, ranked as the nation's 7th poorest city by 24/7 Wall St., endured an ongoing opioid epidemic, watched its political clout dwindle following the death of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, become infested with hundreds of blighted properties, dealt with a sometimes dysfunctional City Council, and accumulated between $35 million and $40 million combined in debt and pension liability.
“Whether you're doing economic development or any other role, you have to look at everything collectively in a community because, at the end of the day, everything relies on each other,” Dubnansky said. “So, whether it's something involving economic development, criminal justice, human service or health, at the end of the day, we need to make sure that we're successful in all those sections, otherwise we all fail.”
He continued: “We do that by economic success. The more businesses that we can drive to the area means more tax revenue that we can collect locally that could help cover those legacy costs, along with potentially new residents moving to the area that would buy homes, shop at our local shops, eat at our local restaurants, and really contribute financially to our local economy, which helps everybody out.”
Dubnansky will join a City Hall that has been in flux throughout recent years.
Hayfield is Johnstown's sixth full-time or interim city manager since 2014.
Meanwhile, Dubnansky will become the third full-time economic development director since 2017.
Most recently, Jonathan Rosenthal held the full-time position for one year before entering an agreement and general release with the city earlier his year. The document, obtained via a Right to Know request, stated the city agreed to pay Rosenthal $2,761.50 in payroll, along with $2,138.50 that was understood to represent the employer's contribution to the deferred pension account.
Rosenthal was released from employment on April 23, 2019 with the understanding he discharged the city from any future claims. Rosenthal signed the document in May, Hayfield in June.
City officials never provided a reason for the end of Rosenthal's employment, describing it as a personnel matter.
Hayfield has served as the economic development director in the interim.