JOYCE GANNON Pittsburgh Post-Gazette firstname.lastname@example.org
While attending a conference about revitalizing main streets a couple years ago in Seattle, Mike Malcanas heard something that stuck with him.
“People said the day a brewery opened in their town was the day that made a difference,” he said.
So, last summer, he opened Voodoo Brewery at the Ritz on the main drag of New Kensington, Westmoreland County. He’s now trying to remake the town’s tattered business district into the thriving commercial hub it was when aluminum giant Alcoa operated along the city’s riverfront.
The independent licensee of Meadville-based Voodoo opened the brewery in a former theater on Fifth Avenue where he’s spent many hours trying to sell others on the place once known as “Aluminum City.”
“A brew pub is a catalyst, a gathering space,” said the real estate developer and entrepreneur who began buying up derelict properties in New Kensington in 2018. He now owns 20 buildings and has leased 15 of 30 commercial spots in those structures.
Many of those deals evolved from conversations at Voodoo where an aluminum smelting pot from Alcoa sits in the outdoor beer garden.
“I thought I would be knocking on people’s doors, but I just got to drink beer and talk to people,” he said. “It was the easiest sales job I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Malcanas has invested close to $1 million in acquiring the buildings.
He launched Olde Towne Overhaul to buy and renovate the properties — many of which are more than a century old and long shuttered. Crews from his primary business, Mito Insulation, are doing much of the work to ready them for new enterprises.
Tenants get rent abatements and graduated rent plans.
They’re also eligible for free startup assistance from The Corner Launchbox, a coworking and business incubator on Fifth Avenue operated by Penn State New Kensington.
‘Part of the rebirth’
Michael Wentzel, whose Trademark Threads customizes apparel, uniforms and other products, operated his business across the river in Cheswick until his mother-in-law met Mr. Malcanas at Voodoo.
She suggested Mr. Wentzel move to Fifth Avenue “because it would be spicy,” he recalled.
Last July, he relocated to a 1,600-square-foot space and received a six-month rent abatement. Now, he pays $700 per month, and the rent will increase to $1,000 by year five of his lease.
The Corner Launchbox assisted him with legal and accounting issues “that I would’ve paid thousands of dollars for,” he said.
When Olde Towne gutted his space, it uncovered a loft Mr. Wentzel set up as an office overlooking his production area.
“It’s been like a business incubator,” he said of the location and help from his landlord and The Corner, “and there’s a brewery across the street.
Brian Heidenreich, a New Kensington native who now lives in Shaler, said his brother met Mr. Malcanas at a Voodoo event and came away inspired to launch an axe-throwing venue in town.
Mr. Heidenreich and a brother-in-law are also partners in the business, Las Hachas, which they aim to open in the former Monarch Furniture store on Fifth Avenue this summer. He will soon start an online business program offered by The Corner.
“Our city is full of pride and potential, and we’re excited to be part of the rebirth,” said Mr. Heidenreich, a teacher in the New Kensington-Arnold School District whose grandfather spent his entire career at Alcoa.
“My grandparents lived through the bad and the good of New Kensington,” he said.
Alcoa operated its flagship plant along the Allegheny River, 20 miles northeast of Downtown Pittsburgh, from 1891 to 1971.
The site is now the multitenant New Kensington Advanced Manufacturing Park.
New Kensington’s population has dropped to 13,100 from about 25,000 before Alcoa closed its main facility there.
All hands on deck
It’s taken decades and several stalled attempts, but the recent downtown revitalization was jump-started in 2017 when Penn State opened The Corner on Fifth Avenue as a primary anchor along what local officials have dubbed the “Corridor of Innovation.”
At the other end of the street is Westmoreland County Community College’s New Kensington Education Center, which opened in 2009.
“The Corner was sort of the driving force” behind growth that includes investment by Olde Towne and others, said city Mayor Thomas Guzzo.
Earlier this month, Pittsburgh health system UPMC opened the $4.6 million St. Margaret’s Family Health Center at 1072 Fifth Ave.
A block from The Corner, construction is under way on the Digital Foundry, a 15,000-square-foot lab space that will offer training in advanced manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing and digital product design.
The Richard King Mellon Foundation provided $5.5 million for the foundry, and Penn State is providing $1 million to support its operations.
At the foundry’s virtual groundbreaking in October, the foundation touted the Mellon family’s ties to New Kensington, which date to the 1880s when they invested in the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., the business that later became Alcoa and built its first large production plant on Mellon-owned land in the town.
Last week, the state’s Commonwealth Financing Authority approved a $298,000 grant to the city’s Redevelopment Authority for structural repairs to the Dattola Theater on Fifth Avenue, which closed in the 1980s and is being restored as an event space.
“Overall, it’s really taken off,” said Mr. Guzzo, who noted since August, two new manufacturing tenants — specialty steel products maker Affival and Filterbuy, which makes air filters — have committed to space in the city-owned advanced manufacturing park.
Despite COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, he said 20-plus new businesses have opened throughout the city in the last 14 months and the town is reviving street festivals like its Arts Center’s Spring Fling held on a recent Saturday along Fifth Avenue.
“There’s a real palpable buzz, and we’re going to work hard to keep the momentum,” he said.
‘Part of the solution’
Nicole Vigilante in 2019 opened Trovo, a vintage home decor shop, in a building on Fifth Avenue she and her husband bought in 2017.
Her husband, Anthony Vigilante, New Kensington’s city and school solicitor, has an office in the building and they rent part of the space to Steel Cup Coffee Roasters, which opened May 1. They also own a property on Fourth Avenue where the Original Hot Dog Factory opened in January.
Mr. Vigilante’s grandfather worked for Alcoa.
The New Kensington natives ”decided to stay and raise three kids here,” Ms. Vigilante said. “You can be part of the problem or part of the solution. I want my kids to have a reason to come back here — or stay.”
Amy Johnson opened baklava shop Sweet Tillies in December in a small storefront she leases from Olde Towne just off Fifth Avenue.
She and her husband, also New Kensington natives, were at Voodoo when they heard about Mr. Malacanas’ efforts to revive the town.
She reduced her hours in the human resources department at UPMC St. Margaret to manage the shop and plans to get marketing help from The Corner.
Much of her business is generated by online orders, “but I also wanted a walk-in space for the community,” said Ms. Johnson, who as a teen walked to stores and festivals along Fifth Avenue.
Lynette Deyo operated Lynette’s M.A.D. Custom Cakes from her home in Brackenridge for a decade before opening her first brick-and-mortar store in March in a space Olde Towne owns on the site of the long-gone Kenmar Hotel.
She met Mr. Malcanas at a vendor fair held at Voodoo.
The new space has allowed her to expand production, and she recently got materials to start a course at The Corner.
Ms. Deyo wants her business to be “a legacy I can pass on” to daughters, Madyson, 12, and Alyce, 15, who help out at the shop.
The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in Tonie’s Massage Therapy Retreat and AngelWing Yoga & Wellness opening next to each other in Olde Towne spaces on Fifth Avenue.
Tonie Vaughn-Clemons, a medical massage therapist, was laid off from her job at a chiropractor after the pandemic struck.
She used unemployment compensation to fund her startup after connecting with Mr. Malcanas through a client.
She tapped The Corner for legal help.
“Something in my gut told me this town would pick up,” she said.
Leah Delaney used her federal stimulus checks and a tax refund to launch AngelWing.
She worked as a personal trainer before the pandemic, so clients followed her to the new location, and her business is growing steadily.
“It was a risk but such a beautiful outcome,” she said.
Back to Mayberry?
Olde Towne also owns a former PNC Bank building on Fifth Avenue it plans to renovate for its own offices and street-level retail.
Mr. Malcanas, of Gibsonia, watched New Kensington decline over the decades as he helped at his father’s insulation business located in the town’s industrial park.
In recent years, he noticed the historic architecture of deteriorating buildings along Fifth Avenue and saw an opportunity to invest in a “holistic, community venture,” he said.
Standing outside Ashley’s Kitchen, a busy cafe that opened recently in a building he owns on 9th Street near the New Kensington bridge, Mr. Malcanas said he’d like to replicate the Olde Towne concept in other decaying industrial towns around Western Pennsylvania.
Next up is Johnstown, Cambria County, where he’s buying up properties and plans to open another Voodoo.
He believes his approach has a better outcome than many gentrification efforts because he’s not pushing out existing tenants and residents.
“We’re fixing up an old town with affordable housing nearby,” Mr. Malcanas saiid. “Everybody is yearning for that Mayberry lifestyle.”