Why Happy Valley’s Brain Belt Location Matters

October 25, 2021

Over the last 18 months, I’ve asked a lot of Happy Valley leaders about how they feel about working here. Here in this valley that’s built out of mountains and patchwork fields, startups and materials DNA and entrepreneurial grit, as opposed to Silicon Valley or Research Triangle. 

Does location even matter anymore, you might ask? Especially in light of COVID and WFH cultural shifts? According to the people I’ve talked to, yeah, it really does matter. Over and over, the Happy Valley ecosystem has been credited with providing a unique mix of support, networking, talent and livability that has fostered company after company after company to global success. And the cherry on top? It’s easy to get here and even easier to want to stay.

It’s centrally located. Happy Valley is situated in the epicenter of the “Brain Belt,” which is what The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation calls the cluster of some of the world’s smartest cities that runs from Upstate New York to North Carolina’s Research Triangle. 

Thanks to visionary thinkers, local universities, regional government initiatives, startups and big corporations, these cities have become part of this vital Brain Belt that is transforming industry. Happy Valley is located in the middle of these transformative cities, both geographically as well as ideologically. 

Happy Valley’s central location puts it within a four-hour drive of most Northeastern U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and a short (and easy) plane ride to anywhere else. 

Photo: Famartin

It’s connected. Happy Valley is well known for its networking and support, but it’s also connected in a literal, practical way. In an earlier interview, Juan Mario Gomez from Xact Metal said: “These great highways into State College are like arteries that pump life into Happy Valley, connecting it with the rest of Pennsylvania and the world. It’s easy. It’s so easy to get people here. Not just people, but good people.”

Britta Teller from Stellar Floors agrees. “Being here in Central Pennsylvania — for one, we're at this intersection of 99 and I-80 that takes our products nationwide, from San Diego to Maine."

It’s not hard (or terrible) to get here. “Flying out of University Park Airport is so easy,” says Dawn Sauer, director of marketing for Drucker Diagnostics. “Where else can you park 100 feet from your gate?”

Bryan Rodgers, director of University Park Airport, says the airport makes it easy for businesses to connect to the global economy: “University Park Airport is the starting point to connect travelers to any destination in the U.S. and outside the U.S. American, Delta and United provide daily flights to major hub airports such as Philadelphia International, Detroit Metropolitan, Chicago O’Hare International and Washington-Dulles International. In addition, Allegiant, a low-fare carrier, provides weekly service to Orlando-Sanford and Clearwater/St. Petersburg/Tampa.”

“Even when I have to catch a connecting flight to my destination, I often save time flying out of University Park,” says Sauer. “I can go from parking to sitting at my gate waiting to boarding in 15 minutes.”

Photo: Jenna Rae Photography

It’s easy to want to stay. 

In 1996, Drucker Diagnostics relocated from Florida to Happy Valley, and President Ken Moscone says it was so the company could take advantage of Penn State’s technical expertise. Once here, Ben Franklin Technology Partners invested $500,000 in the company to develop a centrifuge prototype. “As my company continues to grow, I also continue to offer my thanks and appreciation to the folks at Penn State University and Ben Franklin Technology Partners,” Moscone says. 

Now that the company is here, the livability is one thing that its employees mention. “State College has so much to do, so many shops and restaurants, a great community — and no traffic,” Sauer says.

Kate Alward, director of human resources and training for Ben Franklin Technology Partners says she talks a lot about Happy Valley’s livability with prospective hires. “If they are moving from a city of any size, they will be absolutely shocked at how many hours of their life they will recapture.”

Alward, a Penn State grad, lived in the Washington D.C. area for about six years before ultimately boomeranging back to Happy Valley. She says that “while it was exciting, the daily commute downtown or anywhere around a major metro area is excruciating… I lost three to four hours of my life every work day sitting on the train, a bus or in traffic.” 

"That shift has prompted many Silicon Valley employees and startup CEOs to relocate to other parts of the country for cheaper housing, less traffic and a better quality of living.”

“Lost hours spent commuting to work resonates as a pain point with any applicant who is considering moving from a city of any size,” she says. “When I tell a big-city applicant they can be from one end of Centre County to the other in under 30 minutes, they find that to be almost unbelievable! Combine our low commuting time with the easy drive time to five major metro areas, and Central Pennsylvania is a hands-down winning site!”

The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed about Elon Musk moving Tesla out of California, and this is the part that jumped out: “Tech companies were among the earliest to send employees home at the start of the pandemic and a number of prominent players in the industry have allowed their employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. That shift has prompted many Silicon Valley employees and startup CEOs to relocate to other parts of the country for cheaper housing, less traffic and a better quality of living.”

But why choose only cheaper housing, lower traffic and better livability when you can have innovation and research, too? It sounds like Happy Valley’s location is exactly what they’re looking for.

What’s your story? Are you enjoying having it all here in Happy Valley, or living somewhere else wishing you were here (here’s a hint — check our job board)? Tell us in the comments.

Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com

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