By Tim Hayes A tract of farmland in rural Moon Township gets converted into an Army Air Corps outpost, designed to prevent enemy attack to the roaring steel mills along the Ohio River in nearby Beaver County. Under the visionary eyes of Mayor David Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, Pittsburgh undergoes its first “Renaissance” in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the new Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel – making Pittsburgh the only city in the world with a stunning “front door.” From the base of Mt. Washington, where the mouth of the Fort Pitt Tunnel opens, out past the original – and current – site of Pittsburgh International Airport, and on into Beaver County and both banks of the Ohio River, nearly 40 municipalities now band together in a loose conglomeration known as the “airport corridor.” This sizable stretch of land represents one more enormous opportunity for continued and re-energized growth in population, education, commerce and quality of life for the region. Assuming all of the parties understand the potential and work in a coordinated way, that is. The good news? All signs point to exactly that. Here are highlights from four key players: Pittsburgh International Airport, Robert Morris University, the Pittsburgh Area Airport Chamber of Commerce and the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce.
Of course, the major news here centers on the $1.1 billion Terminal Modernization Project, which promises to bring travelers in and out of Pittsburgh an entirely new, faster, more intuitive, technologically advanced, and culturally attuned experience. Slated to open in 2023, the new terminal is estimated to bring 11,000 new direct and indirect jobs in and around the airport. Also, ground has been broken on the Pittsburgh Airport Innovation Campus – the airport’s long-range plan for flexible real estate development. The plan includes working with regional universities and businesses to create an advanced manufacturing hub on airport property. The Campus aligns with modernization plans and goals for advancing the region, examining how available land and facilities and the region’s assets in energy and high tech can best come together at the airport to benefit the region. The 195-acre parcel will feature office space, research and development laboratories and industrial manufacturing, as well as a town center with restaurants, retail, with a long-range plan of connecting to the terminal. The three-phase construction plan includes up to 16 pad-ready sites available by 2023, and is modeled after the Schiphol development at Amsterdam International Airport. The Innovation Campus has been designated as a licensed World Trade Center site by the World Trade Centers Association and is located within a foreign-trade zone. The designation allows companies to import goods, manufacture products and resell them outside the U.S., and provides relief or exemption of certain duties and tariffs. It provides opportunities for companies that want to establish a global presence in the Pittsburgh region with access to taxiways and runways while realizing the economic benefits of doing business in a foreign-trade zone. Full development of the site is expected to take 10 years or more, with construction of the first building beginning in two to three years. The airport’s overall real estate development strategy is about making Pittsburgh an attractive destination for international commerce and continuing to advance the region.
RMU is one of the largest employers in Moon Township, with a total enrollment of approximately 5,000 students and 2,000 students living on campus. Through participation in leading economic development organizations, RMU actively supports commercial growth, and professional development in the airport corridor. Recognizing a lack of any large meeting or conference space in the airport corridor, RMU teamed with multiple regional corporate sponsors to construct the new UPMC Events Center. This facility promises to serve as a major draw for corporate gatherings and business meetings. It’s also going to turn the University Boulevard corridor in Moon Township into an entertainment and retail destination, complementing recent new development on the Boulevard, including the new University Centre retail complex opening this fall. This 161,000-square-foot facility includes Peoples Court, a 4,000-seat arena that will serve as a concert venue, along with being the new home of the RMU NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball teams and women’s volleyball teams. The Center also includes 11,000 square feet of conference space to host meetings, banquets and other events.
Partnership spells success. That’s the attitude underpinning so much of what the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce works to accomplish, according to its Executive Director Jack Manning. While some steelmaking still gets conducted along the Ohio, it’s the new technologies – led by the Shell investment – that will continue to define the northwestern portion of the airport corridor. “The Shell project will peak at 6,000 construction jobs this fall,” Manning explained. “The search for labor continues to be our highest priority. Then we will need to accommodate for the influx of new businesses in retail, dining and support services. The influx of investment feels like a mini-boom now, but our job at the Chamber is to avoid both booms and busts. We work to achieve steady, sustainable growth. [caption id="attachment_4789" align="alignleft" width="237"] Jack Manning[/caption] “We don’t just want the jobs, we want the families and the people behind those jobs,” he continued. “Only by growing our population can we have long-term economic sustainability. And we need non-petrochemical jobs, too.” Examples of the expanding economies across Beaver County include the expansion of health care and elder care provided by St. Barnabas at the former headquarters of Michael Baker Corp. in Brighton Township. Another is the revitalization efforts being undertaken by riverfront towns like Beaver, Ambridge and Beaver Falls to attract retail centers and small businesses – an effort Manning likened to “lots of mini-Lawrencevilles.” It has required years of work to rezone areas for commercial development, eliminate blight and prepare sites for easy occupation, but those efforts have begun to reap rewards, he said, as some 30 miles of riverfront property is targeted for residential and recreational development. In Center Township, the Beaver Valley Mall has been resurrected as a mixed-use facility, thanks to the influx of investment in the wake of the Shell plant. Development around the mall includes a new Heritage Valley care facility, a new Allegheny Health Network Cancer Center, and new townhome and hotel construction. Local educational facilities including Penn State-Beaver, Geneva College, RMU and Community College of Beaver County work cooperatively on issues like workforce development, curriculum exchanges, and innovation hubs to support growth regionally. “The negative effects on our economy didn’t happen overnight and the positive effects didn’t arrive overnight,” Manning said. “But they are happening. We estimate an additional three to five indirect jobs to be created for every one of the 600 new permanent jobs to be created at Shell. “If you look at the wide ripple effect of Shell’s initial investment, that shot in the arm was all we needed to create great entrepreneurial opportunities for people. Beaver County is back, and in a big way.”
Get Chris Heck talking about the opportunities open to the region along the airport corridor, and you’ll learn a lot. The CEO of the Airport Chamber is a believer, and wants to make you one, too. [caption id="attachment_4790" align="alignleft" width="215"] Chris Heck[/caption] “The next two to five years represent tremendous change and adaptability for the region,” said Heck. “We have the Shell cracker plant, a brand-new airport, both of which will lead to downstream companies, which are the real economic generators.” With 900 member companies, the 104-year-old Airport Chamber stretches from Greentree to Aliquippa. Over the past year or so, Heck led an effort to bring the top 100 corporations in the organization – defined as those employing at least 200 people – along with the airport and RMU into a new sub-group called the Airport Area Corporate Partnership. “The idea is to have these significant employers work with one voice to help advocate for public policy, transportation improvements and workforce development initiatives,” Heck explained. “Times of growth present special challenges and opportunities. Partnerships like this serve as a tool to attract even more companies. Prospects ask what it’s like to relocate in the airport corridor. Well, with our Corporate Partnership team, there’s already a peer group to help with information, perspective and practical tools to make that transition easier and done with greater confidence.” The Airport Chamber takes special care to protect and promote not only employers in the airport corridor, but employees, as well. Heck and his team meet monthly with the Pittsburgh Builders Guild, a group representing 16 trade unions in the region. In those regular discussions, information is shared about construction projects underway, those out for bid, and those anticipated to begin over the coming months. “Even though we’re not feeling the full impact of the Shell cracker plant just yet, from an infrastructure standpoint, the number of projects in place and yet to begin are outpacing the number of employees readily available. Having more work than available workers may sound like a good problem to have, but it is a problem that we will need to address.” Heck noted also that when the Southern Connector – a new highway from Southpointe in Washington County to the airport – opens, the role of energy in propelling the local economy will only get more dominant. “Energy is what’s driving so much of our future here,” he said. “From produced natural gas, to the Shell petrochemical plant, to the plastic pellets being used as raw material for products for their end users – the contained ecosystem being created here holds great promise. And this is just the beginning; additional cracker plants are planned in Ohio and West Virginia. “We are staring at a once-in-a-lifetime economic development opportunity,” Heck observed. “We have the potential to be seen as a worldwide leader in the chemical and plastics industries. We need to make the right investments and ensure that these industries remain clean and sustainable. “It’s all connected. The airport corridor is the place to be right now.”
Last October saw the start of a new group, the Airport Area Corporate Partners, establishing a collaborative voice for advocacy, economic development and sharing a sense of community and vision for embracing new development and relocation for companies interested in locating to the airport corridor. Robert Morris University, the Allegheny County Airport Authority, and the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce have now launched a dedicated website to support these efforts. https://pittairportpartnership.com