Swissvale Mayor Deneen Swartzwelder once hoped that the long-empty Carrie Furnace mill site, where her borough meets the Monongahela River, would one day be enlivened with an amphitheater and a community center, small restaurants and other gathering places. “But that is nobody else’s vision,” she said with a sigh last week.

In neighboring Rankin, which includes the bulk of the site, borough council Vice President William Pfoff has attended countless meetings in hopes of seeing jobs and tax revenue emerge in the shadows of the furnace’s remnants. “Still not one job, not one building, not one concrete thing that you could really hang your hat on,” he grumbled in late November. “And now at the end of the year, I’m leaving office.”

Their boroughs have waited more than 40 years for economic life to return to the site, owned by Allegheny County since 2005. Pfoff and Swartzwelder have been members of a decade-old Carrie Furnace Steering Committee, made up of county and municipal officials. They’ve seen false dawns before, as developers expressed interest, then backed off.

Could a new plan be the real thing?

In August, the nonprofit Regional Industrial Development Corp. [RIDC] agreed to take on the job of reviving 104 acres of the site.

In September, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County inked a deal with RIDC in which the Downtown-based developer agreed to:

  • Buy the 39.5 acres near the Rankin Bridge, over time, with the right of first offer to buy another roughly 60 developable acres over 10 years, all for $80,000 per acre
  • Start building within 10 months on each parcel that it purchases
  • Construct buildings for any one of a range of uses including technology, research and development, biotech, film production, workforce training, life sciences, light manufacturing and assembly or offices.

The remnant of the furnace, which has served as a film backdrop and Rivers of Steel tour site, is expected to be preserved.

The areas in pink are envisioned as the most imminently developable parts of the Carrie Furnace site, spanning Swissvale and Rankin. The eastern end of the site (to the right) is expected to be developed first. (Courtesy of Allegheny County Department of Development)

The stakes are high for Rankin, which has a poverty rate estimated at 30%, versus a Pittsburgh metro area rate of around 11%. Rankin’s annual municipal budget hovers around $1 million, and it has been in financially distressed status under state Act 47 since 1989. Pfoff said the borough needs new revenue from the site to pay its bills, enhance its five-member police force and meet a two-year state-set deadline to get out of distress.

Swissvale, larger and more affluent than Rankin, has been hoping that activity on the site will have ripple effects on its existing businesses.

Last month, PublicSource asked RIDC President Donald Smith about plans for the site, timetables and potential effects on neighboring communities..

Buy, prepare, then build

Smith said RIDC expects to buy as many as 10 acres of the site next year.

While the county and federal government have spent some $35 million on infrastructure in and around the site, RIDC still needs to build internal roads and water and sewer lines, he said.

“We really hope that infrastructure construction will start, if not first quarter, then early second quarter” of 2022, said Smith. Construction of the first building could get underway in the second half of the year.

‘Tech-flex’ on spec

Smith believes the marketing sweet spot for the site is “tech-flex,” a term for buildings with higher ceilings, open floor plans and spaces that can serve as offices, engineering suites and light industrial production spaces. 

“We think there’s a lot of market demand for that kind of product,” Smith said. “We also think it’s a great product to bring some jobs into the Mon Valley.” RIDC expects to construct the first building “on spec,” meaning without a tenant identified.

Public loans, then private investment

Smith said RIDC will use some of its own cash to start development. But RIDC also expects to seek grants or government-backed loans from the county and state. Other options include federal New Market Tax Credits or private capital incentivized through the federal Opportunity Zone program.

He hopes that rent-paying tenants will emerge to fuel further construction.

“We’ve talked to a number of brokers and a couple of companies, and even some developers who may want to partner or might have a project they want to do,” he said. “If there’s a developer who has a great project that would fit with the concept, we’re all ears.”

If ongoing talks come to fruition, he said, “we could see two or three buildings by the beginning of 2023 under construction, and that would be our goal.” 

Complementing neighbors, not competing

“The time is right for Carrie Furnace,” said Smith. Development is picking up in McKeesport, there are “signs of life in Braddock” and there’s unmet demand for tech-flex space, he added.

Downriver, the Hazelwood Green development site is focused on tenants that want to be close to Downtown and the universities, and is aiming for a denser style of development that wouldn’t likely accommodate much tech-flex space, he said. He did not think that would compete with Carrie.

Tech-flex users, he continued, don’t necessarily need to be next door to major universities. “The kinds of companies that go into a tech-flex product create a significant amount of jobs for folks who don’t go to Pitt or Carnegie Mellon University.”

The Carrie Furnace site in the Mon Valley. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Continued film industry activity

The site has served filmmakers, including in the 2012 movie Out of the Furnace. RIDC and the Pittsburgh Film Office have long sought to leverage that experience and convince entertainment industry players to construct sound stages on the site.

“All of us believe that the demand is there,” said Smith. “Now that we’ve in essence achieved site control, we can get to the stage of putting the financial package together to move forward.”

He said that by early next year RIDC might have a sense of the likelihood of film-related development on the site.

Jobs and input for neighboring communities

Smith said RIDC will be reaching out to workforce development agencies to try to match local workers with the needs of the eventual tenants. “The more you can make it plug-and-play for the company to source talent from the local communities, the higher the level of success you will have,” he said.

He expected that the Carrie Furnace Steering Committee would probably continue, with RIDC taking a seat.

He acknowledged that some of the site’s neighbors might be both impatient for progress and skeptical that it will occur. “While I think everybody is still cautious and is looking for us to prove that we’re going to get it done, I think we’re all on the same page,” he said.

Swartzwelder said she still craved something with more pizazz than offices. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still adding uncertainty to the development world, she was glad that groundbreakings of any nature are on the horizon. “The flex space, OK, everybody says we need it, sure. It’s not my first choice. I think it’s my only choice right now.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.

Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...