Higgins eager for a chance at second term
By CHRIS MORELLI
BELLEFONTE — Mark Higgins has enjoyed his first term as Centre County commissioner. He’s hopeful that a second term is in the cards.
Higgins and fellow commissioner Michael Pipe will be on the Democratic ballot when voters go to the polls on Tuesday, May 21 on Election Day.
While Higgins and Pipe are virtual locks for the November ballot, Higgins said he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We gotta work for it,” Higgins said during a recent interview at a Bellefonte eatery. “I really enjoy working with county residents. I like to help them fulfill their dreams.”
Higgins, 55, is a lifelong Democrat. He said that the county has many talented people working for it and he wants to continue to be part of that process.
“We’ve got a lot of really creative people here in the county that have fabulous ideas. As long as those ideas intersect with something that the county has some authority over – human services, criminal justice, economic development – I’m very happy to work with people and see if we can come up with some new ways of handling things or just make something that we currently have a little better,” Higgins said.
Overall, Higgins said, he’s happy with the way the county is running.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of things we do well here in Centre County, so let’s just keep doing them,” he said.
After four years as a commissioner, Higgins said that he’s gotten used to the role. He’s proud of his track record.
“I think what has differentiated me from every other county commissioner we’ve ever had before is my focus on job creation. I know there are some other people running who think – or at least used to think – that the county had absolutely nothing to do with job creation. But in much of the rest of the state and definitely in the rest of the county, generally if you’re going to have a government organization assist in job creators, they tend to be the mayor of your largest city or one of the county commissioners,” Higgins said.
When it comes to job creation, the commissioners are the ones on the front lines, Higgins said.
“Governor (Wolf) is great, but he can only care so much about State College, Bellefonte and Philipsburg. Whereas with county commissioners, we’re working with 10 boroughs and 25 townships. And we care about all of them. We’re close to all of them,” Higgins said.
In Centre County, Penn State is the major employer. And while Higgins doesn’t downplay the vital role that Penn State plays in the Centre region, he would like to see more job creation outside of University Park.
“We’re one of the largest single-company towns in the country. Penn State is on 42 percent of the paychecks issued in the county. It’s great that we have Penn State and there’s a lot of strengths we can leverage, but we desperately need to get more jobs here in the county that are not tied directly or indirectly to Penn State and get a little more diverse,” Higgins said.
According to Higgins, the county has helped create around 330 jobs over the past three years and three months.
“Some people will say, ‘what’s 330 jobs?’ Well one group in that 330 is Morgan Industries. They said they were going to create 12 jobs. It’s more like 18 or 20. The average pay is $100,000. You’re talking like $2 million a payroll. That type of job gets multiplied four-plus times through the economy as people buy homes, remodel, buy groceries and have landscaping done … that kind of stuff is going to turn into $10 million of total additional payroll here in Centre County, which is fabulous,” Higgins said.
When it comes to job creation, Higgins knows what he’s talking about. Before he became a county commissioner, Higgins worked for 30 years as a turnaround specialist in industry and, over that time, has saved and created hundreds of jobs at seven different businesses.
“I would go into organizations that were bankrupt or divisions of bigger companies that they were thinking about closing. I had a specified period of time to roll it out of bankruptcy or drastically change their numbers for the better. And I succeeded six out of seven tries. I didn’t do these as a consultant. I would go in as a general manager or vice president. I did it as an employee,” Higgins said.
If that sounds daunting, it is. Higgins said that the job was high stress, but also high reward.
“To take a business that is just about to go under and turn it around takes a very special skill set,” he said.
That’s part of what makes being a commissioner so rewarding, Higgins said.
“That’s why I’m happy to be working for Centre County. I don’t have to worry about cashflow. I don’t have to call suppliers begging them to please deliver to us even though we haven’t paid them in 90 days. I don’t have to do that. But I can take some of my other skills and save the county substantial amounts of money, work with our local job creators to assist them in creating more jobs, keeping them here and help them grow,” Higgins said.
Higgins said that his relationship with fellow commissioners Michael Pipe and Steve Dershem is good. The three work well together, he said.
“You have two majority (Democrat) and one minority (Republican). What’s unique about Centre County is that has changed in every election for the past five elections. This county is balanced on a razor’s edge. Officially, there are 2,000 more Democrats registered in the county. The numbers are almost even,” Higgins said.
In addition to working as county commissioner, Higgins volunteers time to mentor four Penn State student startups. Three of them have won local awards and two have also won national awards.
For more information about Higgins, visit www.friendsofmarkhiggins.com.