Industry awakens: Mushrooming energy sector gets mills humming again
From the catwalk at U.S. Steel's McKeesport plant, Rick Uhal looks over a yellow railing at dozens of newly rolled black pipes on the shop floor. He smiles a lot.
Uhal is a shift manager, hired after U.S. Steel returned last year to a site it left in the 1980s. Nearly three decades after the region's glory days of steelmaking and manufacturing seemed gone, perhaps no one is as surprised as he is to find himself working in the McKeesport plant.
"I saw the mills go down. I saw a lot of people move out of the area," said Uhal, a McKeesport resident since 1976. Until a few months ago, he was out of work and worried that his career as an engineer and designer had ended.
"It's a whole new career for me, that's why I sound excited," he shouted over the plant noise. "It's a whole new world."
The massive steel company invested tens of millions of dollars at the McKeesport pipe-rolling plant and doubled its work force there to more than 200 since it came back in May 2011.
It's just one of several heavy industrial companies turning their attention to the Pittsburgh region, which historically relied on millwork for everything from jobs to building community parks and fueling government budgets.
Albeit slowly and small-scale, industrial sites are awakening. Companies are expanding and adding staff, often to meet the needs of the growing energy industry, including shale gas drilling.
"There's a lot of success that can occur," said state Sen. James R. Brewster, D-McKeesport, the city's former mayor, of the drilling industry. "This is a chance for the Duquesnes, the Clairtons, the McKeesports ... to gather themselves again and become prosperous."
Yet some observers wonder if rebuilding will hurt neighboring businesses. They question whether investing billions of dollars to reclaim former mill sites actually will cut unemployment in an automated age.
Old sites renewed
In Duquesne, along the Monongahela River, the Regional Industrial Development Corp. invested $47 million to redeveloped the site where U.S. Steel's famous Dorothy Six blast furnace was among six that lit the skies when a mill employed as many as 8,000 before shutting in 1984. RIDC President Don Smith said modern industrial workshops and offices are being added.
Business there is expanding and Dura-Bond, the newest tenant, is building a $12 million coating plant. In all, the park has 14 companies, including American Textile Co., and employs more than 600 people.
The influx of workers caused the new owners of Duquesne Plaza strip mall across Route 837 to put up fresh facades and repave the lot, said City Manager Frank Piccolino. A discount retailer, clothing store and phone store are among tenants at the plaza, which was half-empty in recent years.
Officials plan to use tax money from new business and county grants to tear down or restore blighted properties on Grant Avenue, spreading the revitalization to the city's business strip.
"That may never happen, that we get back to where we used to be," Mayor Phillip Krivacek said. "We know we'll never get a Macy's in town, but if we get two other small businesses, that's what we need to survive."
City officials want to change zoning, too, so hotels and restaurants could open at the RIDC park.
But Smith of the RIDC said that would be "a dreadful idea" because industrial sites want to be near other industrial sites, and manufacturing brings better-paying jobs and more tax money.
A lot of the dispute stems over frustration that the park hasn't developed faster, both sides said.
That's a common problem. Pittsburgh's industrial sector is healthy but it's "an economy of churn" that can take decades for systemic community improvement, Smith said.
At the original Westinghouse plant in the Turtle Creek Valley, the RIDC's Keystone Commons industrial park is the only one of the corporation's four long-held, active brownfield sites that is producing enough to cover its annual expenses, Smith said. The other sites are in Lawrenceville, Duquesne and McKeesport.
The success of Keystone Commons hasn't helped its community overcome urban decay, said Jeff Babyak, 52, a lifelong Turtle Creek resident and a supervisor at Holtec International in the industrial park.
"When I was a kid, this place was a really humming town," said Babyak, who also owns rental property in the borough.
Holtec grew from 180 employees to 380 in fewer than six years, said Dan Miller, the company's shared services, maintenance and materials manager. The company builds nuclear waste containers and needs to hire nearly 100 more people, mostly welders, to help it fill contract work for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine.
Good & bad
Any current job growth doesn't compare to the thousands who once worked at mill sites, said Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh.
In Brackenridge, where Allegheny Technologies Inc. is spending $1.1 billion for a mill, the facility may be so automated that it won't add many jobs to the 920 union workers employed there, said Terry Davidek, the site's union safety coordinator.
"That makes the idea of success something different," Briem said. "Constant ... reinvestment has to be the perspective. Everyone has always been looking for something to replace steel (jobs) but that's not going to happen. We're only just getting past that mentality in some ways."
Holding onto jobs is a crucial success these days, Davidek said, noting the company could have relocated. ATI considered at least two sites in other states, company spokesman Dan L. Greenfield said.
"I think this is the greatest thing for the community here," said Davidek, 59, of Fawn. "It's going to preserve jobs around here for the next 50 years."
Owners of businesses on Brackenridge Avenue are skeptical. Without new jobs, there won't be any big business spinoff, they said.
Even the influx of construction workers isn't adding customers because they get only a half-hour break, business owners said. Construction work has detoured traffic, and the congestion made parking spaces sparse. Dust and loud noises are common, they said.
"We used to have carryouts left and right. Now it's terrible," said Betty Martonik, owner of the Ship's Wheel restaurant for 36 years.
Others are optimistic.
Terry Dobbins, 33, of Stowe, left his job as a beer store manager to work at McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprises on Nichol Street in Stowe. He got a 50 percent raise, a retirement plan, and full health and dental benefits for him and his son. He advanced from a laborer to a heavy equipment operator in a year.
The terminal tripled its revenue and more than doubled its employees, expanding over five years largely by handling sand for the drilling industry, said Jim Lind, company president and a co-owner with the Klee family.
Tax money and donations from the business owners helped Stowe rebuild a road and two parks, township Commissioner Cheryl McDermott said.
"It just seems like it's going to be around for awhile," Dobbins said of the expanding work and business.