Business incubator hatched many opportunities
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout December.
When Cliftex Corp. closed its Connellsville Sportswear factory in 1985, almost 300 seamstresses were idled. Overall, the mid-1980s were bleak years for Southwestern Pennsylvania. With the shutdown of the region's steel mills and coal mines, the local economy struggled.
Many people were certain that the vacant clothing factory, located near St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church on the West Side, would deteriorate like the Aaron's and Troutman's buildings. Then one day in 1987, Ralph Wombacker's telephone rang at his redevelopment authority office.
“It was Ruth Nicklow calling and she was upset,” recalled Wombacker, who oversaw millions of dollars of community improvement projects during his 30-year career with the city as director of the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority.
Nicklow had served as superintendent at Connellsville Sportswear. “She couldn't stand to see that building empty. She asked if there was something the city could do so it didn't deteriorate any further.”
Wombacker had read about a new concept that assisted fledgling businesses and industries to foster growth: business incubators. Although the first business incubator — the Batavia Industrial Center in New York — dated back to 1959, the program didn't become popular until the 1980s.
In 1980, there were only 12 business incubators in the United States — all of them in the Northeast, which had been hard hit by industrial shutdowns. By the mid-1980s, the U.S. Small Business Administration heavily promoted the idea and, by 1987, the number of business incubators had grown to more than 70.
Factory to incubator
That was about the same time that Wombacker and Nicklow had their telephone chat. Nicklow contacted Cliftex Corp., which is based in New Bedford, Mass. “They agreed to gift the Sportswear Building to us in exchange for a tax deduction,” Wombacker explained.
The building needed major renovations before it could entice business tenants. Wombacker turned to state Sen. J. William Lincoln (who is now retired) and state Rep. Richard Kasunic (who has held Lincoln's seat since he retired).
Wombacker also submitted federal grant applications and the redevelopment authority received funding through the Economic Development Administration, as well as additional state money obtained with help from Lincoln and Kasunic.
Once the former factory was remodeled, the redevelopment authority moved its office there. “We operated the incubator for 15 years,” Wombacker said. “Many local businesses rented space from us; some made it, some didn't.”
One successful endeavor was a company called Stahl's Hotronix. The Stahl's family had been in the heat transfer business since 1932. Heat presses are used to print decals on T-shirts, sweatshirts, etc. According to the company's website, Stahl's had encountered trouble with the machines they used. In the early 1980s, the imprinting business experienced major growth and Ted Stahl was looking for a heat press with consistent temperature control.
Stahl eventually hooked up with Ron Anderson; they assembled a technological team that perfected an affordable transfer press with consistent heat. The company's early years were spent at Connellsville's business incubator. They later moved to a larger building in Masontown. The heat presses are now manufactured in Carmichaels, Greene County.
Yough Glass arrives
Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Co., which manufactures sheets of stained glass in many hues, was another incubator tenant that did well — so well, in fact, the company purchased the business incubator from Connellsville Redevelopment Authority in the late 1990s.
“They agreed to pay the redevelopment authority $40,000 a year for 15 years,” Wombacker explained. “That money has helped the authority stay afloat, along with whatever grant money can be found.” He noted that the Yough Glass mortgage is almost paid off.
“Of all the projects that the redevelopment authority handled during my career, I'm most proud of the business incubator,” Wombacker said. “It restored a vacant building and helped several local businesses to get on their feet.”
As of 2012, there were 1,250 business incubators in the U.S., according to the National Business Incubator Association — and growing.
Friday: Connellsville entrusting Fayette Trust to foster revitalization.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.
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