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Dish Network to close McKeesport facility

| Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

When Dish Network signed a lease for an additional year in the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania's Riverplace Industrial Center of McKeesport, Mayor James Brewster thought it was a happy beginning.

But come March 5, when that lease expires, there will be a sad ending for some 600 employees at the second-largest private employer within city limits.

Colorado-based Dish, once known as EchoStar, confirmed in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it is closing its center at 451 Industry Drive in the former U.S. Steel National Works millsite.

"In the case of our McKeesport facility, the space does not meet our business needs," the company said. "Therefore, we made the difficult decision to close the site in March."

The decision was a disappointment to Brewster, whose reaction was stoic.

"We are feeling the crunch just like other cities in America have," Brewster said. "It is a good test of how we are as a city and how as leaders we are going to react to it."

The mayor said he received a FedEx package at his office late Tuesday with notification from Dish Network about the closing. That did not add to his optimism about changing the corporate minds at Dish headquarters in Englewood, Colo.

"Someone would have probably called sooner," the mayor said. "I am disappointed that they have not reached out. We have always had a good relationship with the management team in McKeesport. Dish Network always participated in fund-raisers and events in town. They tried to be a good partner."

"Those are important jobs for McKeesport," said RIDC President Donald Smith, whose agency operates nearly a dozen industrial parks. "But, clearly, they never grew to the scale they originally projected."

Whereas at one time Dish Network was trying to fill a center that could hold 2,000 employees, it now is saying that the 105,445-square-foot facility is too big. Its statement Tuesday sought to spin the situation toward meeting the needs of the satellite television service's customers.

"Dish Network is constantly reviewing opportunities to streamline operations so that we are best equipped to provide customers with the industry-leading satisfaction and service they expect and deserve," the statement began.

A company that once focused efforts on several fronts to recruit operators now is pledging to help those it hired find new jobs.

"We are doing everything we can to help affected employees find employment, including hosting internal and external job fairs, as well as partnering with local community organizations to offer a variety of career development and job search workshops," Dish Network's statement concluded.

The mayor compared the situation to the Precoat Metals closing last spring, which cost the city 180 jobs, and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's decision to close UPMC Braddock in January. The Pittsburgh health system's UPMC McKeesport, with some 1,000 employees, is the city's largest private employer.

Dish had 1,200 employees there in 1999 and 970 in 2004. After it renewed its lease, it again started hiring efforts.

"We have to put things in perspective," Brewster said. "The economic calamity we have seen the past 18 months has indirectly impacted all of this. This is no different than UPMC closing in Braddock."

Brewster said he will work with RIDC to see if Dish Network won't change its corporate mind, but "concurrently we will see what we can do to get another business in there in its place."

Brewster said he has been indirectly in contact with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle's office and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's office. The mayor said they have offered any assistance they can provide.

"We need to reach out to them and see if that is too much space," Allegheny County Director of Economic Development Dennis Davin said.

Onorato's spokesman Kevin Evanto said Onorato asked Davin to contact Dish Network to find out if there was any way to reverse its decision.

"The county executive is very concerned about this announcement and the impact it could have on McKeesport and the Mon Valley," Evanto said.

Dish Network is a member of the Regional Chamber Alliance. RCA President Howard Carpenter said the Dish statement gave few clues about what prompted the closing.

"Obviously there are no 'cash for cable' or 'dollars for DSL' stimulus programs on the horizon," Carpenter said. "Possibly they don't expect better building conditions, i.e., lease terms, taxes, capital funding, etc., to warrant remaining."

The company said it was seeking to meet requirements under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires 60 days' notice to the workers, to the appropriate local government apparently, the package delivered to Brewster Tuesday and to state officials.

Tuesday's announcement came 125 days before the lease is to expire.

RIDC Vice President for Marketing F. Brooks Robinson said Dish "made a corporate decision. We just have to get to finding new occupants for that space. That's our job. We just have to get about getting more tenants for McKeesport and that's that."

A year ago, RIDC was so sure Dish was leaving that it advertised for new tenants for the location along Industry Drive.

"We had negotiated a lease extension in the spring, and were hopeful Dish would continue to have a presence," Smith said. "So, obviously, we were surprised."

The center was a point of community pride since EchoStar announced in August 1998 that it would use a $4 million facility in the old millsite.

McKeesport's center was the third of what became 13 facilities for EchoStar/Dish, and its first outside Colorado.

EchoStar was looking at 38 other cities. Gov. Tom Ridge's administration helped McKeesport win the center.

"It clearly illustrates our expansion due to the ever-increasing demand for Dish Network satellite television programming," said Charlie Ergen, then-EchoStar CEO, who still is in that role with Dish.

The late Mayor Joseph Bendel said it was one of the major achievements of his administration.

Tom Olson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review contributed to this story.

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