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Leetsdale's industrial revitalization could play role in Obama's economic speech

Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
President Obama announced a memorandum establishing a 'MyRA' program in a speech on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at the Irvin Plant of U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works in West Mifflin. Obama will visit Leetsdale on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

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Friday, April 11, 2014, 12:33 p.m.

The tiny borough of Leetsdale will figure into the national discussion on the economy on Wednesday when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visit.

The White House did not say when or where the event would take place but said in a statement on Friday that the trip would focus on the economy.

A community of 1,200 residents along the Ohio River, Leetsdale is home to Leetsdale Industrial Park, a 126-acre riverfront complex where a mix of advanced manufacturing firms occupy a former Bethlehem Steel facility.

Leetsdale's industrial transformation for the modern age fits in well with Obama's economic plan, said Morton Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“He wants to show that the economy can grow in many areas that were and still are an important part of the economy,” Coleman said.

Obama has called for more investment in high-tech manufacturing. Overall, manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania continue to decline, as the state has shed 7,000 over the past year, a 1.2 percent decrease from 565,900 in February 2013.

But Leetsdale has managed to move beyond its industrial past and become a center for the kind of high-skilled jobs Obama hopes to encourage.

Tenants at the industrial park include Schroeder Industries Inc., a 65-year-old maker of filtration and fluid conditioning products; steelmaker Arcelor Mittal; Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary Shaw Industries; oil and gas giant Weatherford International; and the aluminum company Almatis Inc., an Alcoa subsidiary.

The park has been praised as a symbol of brownfield redevelopment.

At least $2.4 million in public funds have gone to clean up the site, according to the National Brownfield Association, and the park recently attracted a $700,000 state grant to update rail lines.

State Sen. Matt Smith said he is eager to have the national spotlight cast on Leetsdale's industrial revitalization.

“We're excited to show the world that Leetsdale is a small community, but a former brownfield site that's really cleaned up and turning into a real economic driver,” said Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon.

Smith and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said they plan to attend the event, and other lawmakers were figuring out their schedules.

Obama last traveled to Western Pennsylvania on the day after his State of the Union address in January, when he signed an executive order implementing a retirement savings plan at the U.S. Steel Irvin Plant.

The State of the Union focused on the challenges confronting middle- and low-income workers.

Obama's visit happens a week after the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO wrapped up its convention in Pittsburgh. The labor organization vowed to make raising the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10 a key issue this year, and that has been central to Obama's economic agenda.

Beyond the economy, there is likely some political calculation behind the president's trip, said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.

DiSarro said Obama was trying to capitalize on a vulnerable Republican governor in an election year and capture votes for Democratic candidates in the more conservative western side of the state.

“He's there because he smells political blood,” DiSarro said. “The Democrats think they can pick up a major governorship.”

Gov. Tom Corbett issued a statement that it was “encouraging that the president and vice president would look to Pennsylvania's economy for solutions as to how to get our country working again.”

The state's unemployment rate of 6.2 percent is the lowest it has been in more than five years and well below the national rate of 6.7 percent. Corbett took credit for that job creation and said he hopes Obama and Biden “are not here to tout the policies that the liberal Democrats running for Pennsylvania governor hope to import from Washington.”

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