The Buncher Co. announced plans Tuesday to build a 200,000-square-foot warehouse with no tenant pledged in Findlay Township, a project Allegheny County and airport officials say shows economic development is taking off near Pittsburgh International Airport.
"This event marks a milestone in the development of airport property," County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said.
Buncher's willingness to build at the Clinton Commerce Park without a tenant lined up is a good sign that businesses want to move to the area, he said.
Buncher President and CEO Tom Balestrieri said his company plans to build a second 200,000-square-foot building at its site due West of the main runways if the first phase of the project goes well.
"My hope is this speculative building won't be speculative very long," Balestrieri said.
But others say development around the airport has failed to deliver the jobs envisioned when it opened in 1992.
"It certainly has not been the engine of economic growth that the county thought it would be some time ago," said former Robert Morris University President and current management professor Edward A. Nicholson, who used to serve on an airport area marketing board.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority has about 1,200 acres of useable land around the airport for development. The overall strategy for the airport is to attract massive distribution centers, said Dennis Davin, Allegheny County's development director.
Onorato said the lack of "shovel-ready ground," a lack of cooperation between regional governments, and the absence of infrastructure such as roads and water lines previously prevented progress. Those troubles have been reversed, he said.
To pay for such improvements for Buncher's warehouse project, the county, Findlay Township and West Allegheny School District approved tax increment financing. Such financing pledges future property tax revenues to pay off bonds that provide the money for the improvements.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pledged $7.5 million more for utility connections and other infrastructure for the project just north of Clinton Road and west of Route 60.
"We needed to make this public investment for the private sector to move forward," Onorato said.
Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties are working together to market the airport from a regional perspective, Davin said. The Tri-County Airport Partnership works under the aegis of the Allegheny Conference.
Davin predicted another project will be announced this year for land on the east side of the airport.
No targets have been set for the number of jobs to be created by development around the airport, Davin said. "We've been concentrating on getting these projects under way," he said.
Others say challenges remain for airport corridor development.
While Buncher's investment is a good sign that a market for air cargo businesses might be out there, the lack of international flights from Pittsburgh is a concern for Jim Roddy, the county's former chief executive.
Roddey tried to woo air cargo businesses during his term, but said he found it to be a mature industry with companies already entrenched in major hubs such as Chicago and Atlanta.
Columbus, Ohio, developed a major distribution hub centered on a former Air Force base and the same idea could work for Pittsburgh around its airport, Robert Morris University's Nicholson said.
Bringing in any new business to the county is difficult because the area's population is not growing, said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute, a conservative South Hills think tank.
Also, the airline industry "peaked about the time the airport opened," meaning businesses centered on air travel have not been growth industries, Haulk said. Businesses have to have a reason to want to be near an airport, he said.
Warehousing and distribution companies usually settle near the junction of interstate highways, Haulk said. The airport is not close to that kind of junction.
Davin points to the recent arrival at the airport of TIMCO Aviation Services Inc., a jet engine maintenance company that could eventually employ 150 people, as a sign that highway issues are not a fatal problem. The company ships its engines via truck and was not deterred by existing road links, he said.
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