Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Southwestern Pa. wins coveted $63 million federal grant to spur technology investment

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman said the grant would help the region "close equity gaps — not just racial and ethnic, but also geographic.

The Pittsburgh region has won a competitive federal grant that will provide almost $63 million dollars to help businesses invest in robots and other technology, the result of a winning bid for part of a $1 billion pot offered by President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better Challenge." It is, say those who championed the bid, an effort to vault Pittsburgh into the future while investing in communities often left behind in the past.

The bid, by the Southwest Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative, will focus on helping smaller businesses incorporate robots and artificial intelligence in their facilities, while also training workers to use the new technology. The collaborative is one of 21 proposals to receive money from the challenge, out of more than 500 submissions. And part of its appeal was its pledge to invest heavily in rural communities once dominated by mining, as well as communities of color.

"This grant will allow us to bring together the existing strengths in robotics and autonomy with the region's established manufacturing engine," said Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman, who helped craft the proposal. "These investments will allow us to close equity gaps — not just racial and ethnic, but also geographic."

The collaborative plans to direct more than half of the grant to the 10 counties outside Allegheny, and to pay special attention to small- and mid-sized businesses with under 500 employers.

"We're thrilled that this funding will allow the region for the first time to provide a truly systemic approach to creating opportunity for workers and employers," said assistant commerce secretary Alejandra Castillo.

The local effort has been on a shortlist of potential winners since late last year, and the funds could be moving by the end of September. After it kicks in, Pashman estimates that it could benefit some 14,000 workers and spur over half a billion dollars in economic activity throughout the region. That is just a fraction of a regional gross domestic product of nearly $150 billion. But those celebrating the win in a conference call with reporters described the project as an effort to knit the region's technology hub with outlying areas, and to use futuristic technologies to help reinvigorate communities that have been left behind.

"The people of southwestern Pennsylvania didn't wait for the future when they were knocked down," said US Senator Bob Casey, referring to the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s and 1990s. "They invented their own future. ... And this is, I think, emblematic of that effort."

Casey and other elected officials on the call noted that the challenge grant was funded by President Biden's American Rescue Plan — legislation, they pointedly observed, that Republicans opposed. And the timing of Friday's announcement — just days before Biden is set to make a Labor Day visit to the area, and just two months before a critical midterm election -- may help underscore that point.

"Let's be honest: without their vote, there is no American Rescue Plan," White House advisor Gene Sperling said of the local Congressional delegation.

It was a particular feather in the cap for two outgoing local Congressmen: Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle, who will both leave office at the end of the year. Doyle has been lauded for his success at bringing federal investment to the region.

Lamb said the money could help reverse a decades-long trend in offshoring American manufacturing at a time when businesses and workers alike were rethinking it. "There are a lot of companies ... that have moved some of their operations overseas" at a time when COVID means "they want a shorter, more reliable supply chain," he said. "Robotics and automation are going to be a big part of these companies' ability to compete with lower-cost producers overseas."

For his part, Doyle said he was "not surprised that southwestern Pennsylvania entry was one of only 21 winners among more than 500 contenders that entered this competition" given its technological prowess. The investment, he said, "won't just bring economic growth and new jobs to our region. ... It's going to benefit the entire nation."

Corrected: September 2, 2022 at 8:43 AM EDT
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Stefani Pashman's name.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.