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Peduto, city charm businessman pondering Pittsburgh for LED light plant

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 12:12 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Robert Grah, founder of Slovenia-based Grah Lighting, is in Pittsburgh to tour potential sites for an LED light manufacturing facility and meet with potential investors. Pittsburgh is in the running with Cleveland and Denver.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jurcek Zmauc (center), Consul General for the Consulate General of the Republic of Slovenia, holds a meeting at Saul Ewing's law firm in One PPG Place, Downtown, regarding the Slovenia-based Grah Lighting and its potential to build an LED light manufacturing facility in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh's genuine interest might lead Slovenian LED light maker Robert Grah to open his company's next manufacturing plant here, he said on Wednesday as he sat in a 30th-floor conference room overlooking Downtown.

In the next conference room, Kevin Acklin, an attorney who will become Mayor-elect Bill Peduto's chief of staff, met privately with a potential investor in Grah's venture. Another investor, representing a New York private-equity firm, sat in the waiting room.

“It has been really important for me to see that the City of Pittsburgh has such a huge interest to win our company. I am impressed,” said Grah, managing director of Slovenia-based Grah Lighting, which employs 1,200 people.

Peduto is a driving force behind the effort to entice Grah Lighting to establish a plant here, rather than in Cleveland or Denver.

It would employ up to 150 people initially and potentially produce longer-lasting, energy efficient LED streetlights to replace the city's 37,000 remaining traditional ones.

Peduto is the only top official from the three American cities to travel to Slovenia to visit one of Grah's factories, Grah said.

Yet he gave no indication about which city he prefers and said he'll decide by year's end.

“I am a professional businessman. I will count all the plusses and minuses,” he said.

The plant would be the headquarters for Grah's non-automotive LED light production for North, Central and South America. The company has an automotive lighting plant in Detroit.

Aside from streetlights, the facility would make all kinds of exterior, interior and underwater lighting, Grah said.

Grah toured two sites — the Crucible Building in the Strip District and the former LTV Steel Co. property in Hazelwood that is being prepared for an estimated $1 billion in riverfront development.

“Both sites are fit for our production,” Grah said.

Crucible Steel built its mill during the World War I era, said Shadyside developer Brian Schreiber, who owns the building. It became home to retail tenants, including furniture wholesalers and, most recently, online clothing retailer ModCloth, Schreiber said. It has been vacant for about a year.

Crews have renovated the first floor and should soon start work on the upper floor. Grah told Schreiber he would need at least 20,000 square feet to start operations, Schreiber said.

“It seems like our building has all the ingredients,” Schreiber said.

Grah said the former LTV Steel site is attractive because the company could build from the ground up. Grading work on the 178-acre site is expected to be completed early next year and work on a road and infrastructure for utilities will begin, said Tim White, vice president of Downtown-based Regional Industrial Development Corp., which is collaborating with four foundations to develop the site.

“We could build a building at the same time the (infrastructure work) is going on, so I think the timing lines up for the site,” White said.

Grah isn't seeking public subsidies to build. He does want private investors to partner with him.

He didn't say how much money he hopes to get, and wouldn't put an overall price tag on the development. Peduto has told the Tribune-Review that the manufacturer is looking for at least $3 million from investors.

Grah said he is looking for someone who “knows the ropes,” from a local business standpoint.

“I am not from America. You must be born here to understand this market. A guideline of mine is, I always take a local partner because he knows how to work in this market,” Grah said.

Wherever it locates, Grah's plant will be the latest in a growing number of Slovenian companies to establish operations in the United States, said Jurcek Zmauc, Slovenia's consul general for 10 U.S. states, including Pennsylvania.

Zmauc, who accompanied Grah to Pittsburgh, said the Cleveland-based Slovenian-American Business Association has helped a Slovenian polymer company get off the ground in Akron and a Slovenian microbrewer get started in Cleveland.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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