Gene Barr says it’s been a great ride working to make Pennsylvania a better place to work, live and play.
The president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry will hand the reigns over to Luke Bernstein June 15, after announcing his retirement last November.
“This has been an incredible opportunity,” Barr said recently from his Harrisburg office. “It has been the capstone of my career. The employees here do phenomenal work, and the board is fantastic, which makes the organization successful.”
Barr joined the Chamber in 2003 and became president in 2011, right after the recession from 2008-2011.
Faced with membership levels declining and smaller chambers closing or combining, Barr said the challenge then was to continue moving forward to sustain the level of service needed.
“We have healthy, more vibrant communities if we are successful,” he said. “The financial times were tough, but the business community understood our values.”
He explained that years ago, chambers were more civic minded. Through the years, they became business advocates and articulated issues that mattered to the business community.
Those issues, he emphasized, are what make the communities across the state livable.
“People want to live in a community where they can have a good career, education for their children, economic opportunities and safe neighborhoods,” he said. “We [members and staff of the chamber] don’t live in an alternate environment – we want the same things.”
One of the main misconceptions Barr has seen is that people think the chamber says no to everything and wants to eliminate corporate taxes.
“That’s not true,” he said. “We want to make Pennsylvania competitive and provide positives for our communities.”
He described it as a balancing act.
“We need protections, but we also need economic development,” he said.
Barr used energy as an example.
The state, he said, has ample natural gas resources. The PennEast pipeline shut down in September 2021 due to the inability to obtain water permits and other regulatory issues. The pipeline was to run natural gas from the Marcellus/Utica formation, much of which is in Pennsylvania, to New Jersey for export.
The country, he said, could have been sending natural gas to Eastern Europe, which could have changed the Russian invasion of Ukraine because European demand for gas would not have been an issue.
Right now, “we have no development for natural gas, oil or coal. We need to find balances with efficiency, economic feasibility, and environmental balances,” he said.
People are worried about emissions, but Barr pointed out that even the production of solar power creates emissions.
“We have all the above and there are scientific advantages in each,” he said, pointing to the cleaner coal being produced. “The industry found better ways of doing things because they attract consumers by giving them what they want.”
Barr’s passion about helping Pennsylvania shine is apparent when he talks about the Civility Awards created by Allegheny College and the chamber. The award, Prize for Civility in Public Life, is to honor public officials from both sides of the political spectrum who have conducted themselves with noteworthy civility.
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” he said. “I’m pleased to develop relationships with Democrats and Republicans where we can work together to advance Pennsylvania as a place to work, live, and grow families.”
Barr believes people can disagree and still work toward common goals.
“I try not to personalize things, but rather stick to the issues,” he said.
Social media and news/entertainment outlets make that a more difficult task, he said. People tend to watch what backs up their beliefs. He hopes people will turn more to local news and follow local politics. Local governments, he said, must deliver on the things people rely on like snow and trash removal.
“When people demonize others, they make situations incendiary. I like to listen and see where the weaknesses in my arguments are; where I can learn,” he said.
His motto: “Talk like I’m right; listen like I’m wrong.”
While Barr started his tenure as president just after the recession, he also found the chamber faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We decided we would help every business who contacted us, whether it was a member or not,” he said. “We held online webinars that sometimes drew upwards of 2,500 people.”
While he said the move netted the chamber new members, he was more pleased that the chamber was able to get information and benefits out to the state’s businesses.
One thing Barr is worried about is the loss of the congressional seat after the last census. “We are stagnating,” he said. “With the state being the second largest natural gas producer, a great workforce and our location, we shouldn’t be losing a congressional seat.”
So, what is the roadblock? Barr points straight to the business tax structure.
“It makes us unliked,” he said. “We have the second highest corporate tax rate next to New Jersey. We lost U.S. Steel and Nucor production facilities to other states.
“If we don’t change this, we will be spending money to educate another state’s workforce.”
Manufacturing is much the same, he said. With a 10% corporate net income tax rate, companies just look elsewhere.
“Luke will bring his own perspective,” he said, adding that he knows the chamber will continue to be successful. “Pennsylvania can be better and I’m sure we will use all our assets to move forward to accomplish what we need. Luke and the chamber staff will do it.”
So, what’s next for Barr? After taking the summer off, he said chuckling, he plans to work with the Gettysburg Foundation because he is a self-professed history buff. In fact, he is the author of a non-fiction book “A Civil War Captain and His Lady; A True Story of Love, Courtship and Combat.”
He is also considering management consulting and working on public policy issues.
“It’s hard to go from very busy to nothing,” he said.