DEB ERDLEY | Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021 4:36 p.m.
The digital world is colliding with the real one, only this time it’s not on a movie set but on the gritty streets of New Kensington.
Workmen are setting the steel for The Digital Foundry at New Kensington, the brainchild of a coalition brought together by Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider. The concept calls for the 15,000-square-foot facility to provide a vast array of cutting-edge digital technologies to local manufacturers, a makerspace for entrepreneurs and a training center designed to provide new skill sets to displaced workers, for employers looking to advance their workforce and schools seeking real world experience for their students.
The building isn’t scheduled to open until 2022 “but it’s already having a tremendous impact,” Snider said.
This month, the state stepped up with a $200,000 training grant for the project that has received support from private industry as well as foundations.
The multimillion-dollar project, conceived among other things with the goal of revitalizing the struggling city, has notched supporters across education, government, the foundation community and the private sector. Early partners in the project with Penn State include the R.K. Mellon Foundation, the Westmoreland County Economic Growth Connection, the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. and the City of New Kensington.
Once a thriving commercial and industrial center on the Allegheny River 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, New Kensington had fallen on hard times in recent decades. The city, which birthed the aluminum industry in America, boasted a population of 25,000 at its peak in 1950. It was about half that size by 2008, when Snider landed at the regional Penn State campus located just out of town.
Many of the manufacturers that once supported the region had long since left the city. Its community hospital closed in 2000, and a number of the shops that lined Fifth Avenue had fallen into disrepair or closed.
And recent census numbers showed nearly a quarter of its residents live at or below the poverty line.
Aaron Moore, 49, of New Kensington has more than a passing acquaintance with poverty. Moore grew up in New Kensington in public housing and now works in maintenance in public housing. He said it will take deep community connections and work addressing issues like substance abuse for this to have much of an impact on those living on the margins of the community.
“There’s a potential there. They figure they’re putting jobs there and that’s great. But if they don’t reach out to the community and help change mindsets, it won’t help. I can tell when I was an alcoholic, 20-30 years ago they could have put jobs there paying $18-$19 an hour and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me,” he said.
Even today, Moore’s not sure there is much future in New Kensington for his three children. He wants to see them succeed, but he’s not sure they will be able to stay in the town where he grew up.
Snider believes The Digital Foundry may be able to change that and in doing so provide a template for other struggling communities.
Where many saw little more than blight and decay in New Kensington, Snider and Tom Guzzo saw possibility when they met 12 years ago. At the time, Guzzo was a city councilman. Now that he is mayor, he and Snider continue to work on that vision.
It’s been a slow, but steady climb back that began to gain momentum several years ago when Penn State officials began to promote the concept of working to build back communities around the university’s regional campuses.
In late 2017, university President Eric Barron was on hand for the ribbon cutting of “The Corner,” a coworking space at the corner of Seventh Street and Fifth Avenue that the university supported. The facility provides low-cost coworking spaces and training for entrepreneurs. When it opened, it also provided a glimmer of hope for the future.
Guzzo said it’s bearing fruit.
Mike Malcanus is a Butler County developer who purchased 25 buildings in the city’s commercial district and began renovating them in the past several years. He has bought into the vision Guzzo and Snider are promoting.
“I saw (Snider’s) passion and what they were doing, that they had a lot of government, institutional and education support. The missing piece was private business,” he said.
Malcanas, who opened a Voodoo Brewery franchise last year in the old Ritz Theater on Fifth Avenue, said he’s found tenants, most of them small businesses for “16 or 17” downtown units in the last year.
“Over the last 15 months, we’ve opened up 31 businesses in the city of New Kensington, and that was during covid,” Guzzo boasted.
They ranged from small, mom-and-pop shops to a large filter manufacturing plant, a division of a national company that will employ 100 people at New Kensington’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing. Three years ago, the city acquired the 66-acre riverfront property that once housed a massive Alcoa plant with the intention of seeding it for modern manufacturing.
Snider insists The Digital Foundry has the potential to seed even bigger changes for the city and the region. It will bring students from Penn State, entrepreneurs with dreams, employers looking to up their game and workers into town to tap its facilities.
And providing entry-level training in digital skills for unemployed workers has the potential to lift residents out of poverty and change the face of the community, Snider said.
Digital Foundry CEO Sherri McCleary, an executive with 33 years of experience in technology deployment at companies like Alcoa and Kennametal, joined the project last year. She said the extensive planning that went into it positioned it to make a difference.
In addition to Penn State and its partners in government and the foundation community, the Digital Foundry boasts five founding partners from the private sector — Siemens USA, Superior Controls and Distribution (ACD), Banner Engineering, Ectobox and Premier Automation. McCleary said the early buy-in from those partners was critical to helping build a foundation for operations.
The need for access to cutting-edge digital technologies and training became apparent before officials even broke for The Digital Foundry, McCleary said. It came to light during the long hours of research and brainstorming Snider and Guzzo began years earlier.
“We did an in-depth marketing analysis several years ago in advance of this,” she said. “And we found that within a 40-mile radius of New Kensington, there were over 5,000 manufacturing companies, 97-98% of which were classified as small businesses. And we focused on how to help keep them competitive and create a workforce prepared to take our jobs.”
With months to go before The Digital Foundry is ready for occupancy, Snider said it is already making inroads through partnerships it has developed with local industries and k-12 schools.
McCleary’s team recently completed its first high-level training program that attracted 16 companies to the course that operated out of the Penn State New Kensington campus in Upper Burrell.
“We’re not a research institution,” McCleary said. “We’re all about taking today’s technologies to solve today’s problems. I think we’ve got the foundational parts to make this a success.”