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Development center expands services to Mon Valley displaced workers, businesses

| Tuesday, April 14, 2015, 4:21 a.m.
U.S. Steel’s McKeesport Tubular Operations was idled indefinitely in August 2014, affecting approximately 180 employees.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
U.S. Steel’s McKeesport Tubular Operations was idled indefinitely in August 2014, affecting approximately 180 employees.

An effort that started in January with training for would-be entrepreneurs is expanding to help employees who were displaced and businesses that were affected when U.S. Steel indefinitely idled its McKeesport Tubular Operations in August.

“You can't always be dependent on larger businesses to be your primary employer,” said Ray Vargo, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Small Business Development Center.

The center will work with a $100,000 grant from the federal Small Business Administration to assist displaced workers and small business owners.

“The SBA believes successful small businesses will help create prosperous Mon Valley communities,” said Kelly Hunt, who directs the SBA's Pittsburgh district office.

Approximately 160 rank-and-file and 20 management employees lost their jobs at the former Camp-Hill Corp. electric resistance weld plant near the Marina at McKees Point.

“The Mon Valley continues a trend of reinventing itself,” said state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, who called the Small Business Development Center's program “another tool for individuals to join this reinvention.”

Vargo called it the second phase. It started in January when the development center and others joined for a Regional Initiative to Promote Entrepreneurship.

More than 30 people signed up for the 12-week program, bringing together the development center and the McKeesport Business District Authority; Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce's Regional Chamber Alliance Foundation; the Minority, Women, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Governmental Committee; the Southwestern Pennsylvania Veterans Chamber of Commerce; industry experts and Pittsburgh's nonprofit North Side Industrial Development Co., otherwise known as the Riverside Center for Innovation.

“The 20-plus people who completed the program will be graduating this coming week,” Vargo said. “We will continue to work with those individuals on an ongoing basis.”

One of the purposes of the SBA grant is to find the local supply­ chain companies that once serviced the plant.

“This one is for the existing businesses, for expanding their market and looking at supply chain connections,” Vargo said. “We're providing subsidized consulting for these business owners.”

“I am looking forward to seeing the program come to fruition by creating new opportunities for current and potential businesses,” Brewster said.

Vargo said his center has reached out to McKeesport for its list of businesses.

The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence in the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute oversees the center.

“We recognize that part of our important work at the IEE is to expand our job-­growing services to our region's economically depressed communities,” the institute's director, Bob Stein, said.

Since its founding in November 2013, the institute has aimed to promote and foster innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship.

“Up and down the Mon Valley corridor, the main streets once were thriving businesses, but now you see a lot of vacancies,” Vargo said. “With those vacancies there could be opportunities, if you have the right market.”

Mayor Michael Cherepko said land is being prepared in McKeesport and other Mon Valley communities that could welcome industrial, retail and other business opportunities.

“We are primed with opportunities, especially with regard to available, affordable real estate,” Cherepko said.

Vargo said his center's services are free, including strategic planning assistance for businesses and consultation for former McKeesport Tubular Operations employees.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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