downtown Windber

This is a Nov. 11, 2018 photo of downtown Windber.

WINDBER – A Windber group has hired a North Carolina man with local roots to lead efforts to lure people back to the borough.

The grassroots Windber Area Economic Development Committee hired Durham-based consultant Colin Bryan to use technology to market the borough’s top selling points, as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift toward remote work.

Bryan, a 2012 Windber Area grad and former Penn State University walk-on football player, is an information technology consultant and co-founder of an initiative called “This is Opportunity.”

Bryan said he spent the past several years building up blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhoods by using online outreach, training and personalized videos to help people who were previously homeless market their talents to companies with jobs to fill. He found success while working from a computer 400 miles away in North Carolina.

Bryan said he envisions using similar marketing methods to connect working professionals and the businesses that employ them with Windber by focusing on the 3,900-person community’s strengths and unique offerings, including its low cost of living, amenities and small town charm.

“I’m a remote worker, so I already have an idea about what many of them are looking for,” he said.

Bryan’s pitch involves cataloging the Windber community’s top selling points – its downtown, its health care offerings and its safety, among others – and tailoring them to different demographics through media outlets on which they rely.

For older residents who might consider settling in Windber as a place to retire, that might include highlighting low property costs, low taxes and the opportunity to reconnect with old friends through print media or Facebook, he said. For a young couple looking to start a family, that might involve marketing Windber Area’s high-ranking schools, walkability and low crime.

The same approach can be taken in trying to promote Windber to companies whose expertise might fill or support a local niche here, he said.

Bryan said plans are underway to create a web page that introduces the project and the Windber community to the outside world, as well as social media accounts to work hand-in-hand with the page. There also will be efforts to reach out to area alumni groups to educate them about the effort.

“Colin is going to survey people about Windber, and he’ll put a marketing plan together,” said John Venzon, Windber Area Economic Development Committee president, “but he needs people to get involved and he needs people to share their stories – their testimonials about why this is a great place to live.”

Venzon is one of seven board members on the grassroots committee, which has raised money through dinners and other fundraisers to improve Windber, including spearheading studies and grant applications to upgrade the Windber Recreation Park ballroom.

The group began focusing on remote workers last summer after recognizing that 23 million Americans were working remotely and had the chance to do that anywhere, he said.

“This is a great town, and you can buy a home for $150,000 here that might cost $400,000 in a place like Washington, D.C.,” Venzon said, “but the challenge is figuring out a way to tell people about it.”

Enter Bryan, who has worked as a information technology consultant for firms in Chicago and Durham. He’s also the son of Mike Bryan, Windber Borough Council president.

But fellow economic development committee member Jim Furmanchik said it was Colin Bryan’s understanding of the remote working environment and his forward-thinking way of using research and technology to market the borough that made his pitch stand out.

“He understands what we’re looking for,” Furmanchik said. “He has a passion for his hometown ... and he has an outside-the-box way of approaching this.”

No borough tax dollars are being used, he added. Venzon said the committee has its own funds set aside to cover the $9,000 cost to identify target groups, develop strategies for how to reach them and a long-term vision to work toward. The group has reached out to local businesses for support, and plans are underway to launch a GoFundMe page to keep the initiative rolling forward.

Bryan said the group will adapt its efforts in response to what works and what doesn’t in the months ahead. No one should expect to see a sudden wave of Windber-bound workers overnight, he stressed.

“We aren’t going to become a remote worker haven or technology hub this year, or even next year,” he said. “The key is taking the right incremental steps and having a long-term plan in place to get to that point.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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