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Former Amazon exec wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., starting in New Kensington

The inside of a factory under construction.
Courtesy of RIDC
Alcoa opened its former New Kensington Works in 1891 but then shut down the operation by 1971.

The city of New Kensington shares the experience of countless industrial powerhouses of the 20th century. Home to one of Alcoa’s earliest factories, it fueled the growth of the nation’s aluminum industry. But when the plant closed in 1971, this former manufacturing hub eventually was sapped of the economic energy that once galvanized it.

Now, a national firm led by a top Amazon alum and backed by billionaire Thomas Tull hopes to reverse New Kensington’s fortunes. In a bid to revive the U.S. industrial sector, Re:Build Manufacturing announced Monday that it will open its first factory in the 1-million-square-foot facility that once housed Alcoa’s New Kensington Works along the Allegheny River, just 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Officials said the project will create 300 permanent full-time jobs as part of a longer-term push to reshore factory work that the U.S. has lost over decades to competition overseas. The state expects an additional 100 workers to be employed in the plant’s renovation.

“After nearly four decades of steady decline in U.S. manufacturing, it’s time to bring more plants, more jobs, and more growth back home, including here in western PA,” said Re:Build chairman and co-founder Jeff Wilke.

During the pandemic, “all of the failures in the supply chain became so evident to all of us,” Wilke said. So with the support of “a small group of patriotic investors, we raised the money to … rebuild the U.S. manufacturing base and, in particular, high-tech manufacturing jobs that are crucial for our economic success and our global competitiveness.”

Wilke joined Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, state legislators, and Pittsburgh-area business leaders at Acrisure Stadium Monday morning to unveil an $81 million investment in the 70-acre industrial campus just outside New Kensington’s business district.

A rendering for a new factory in New Kensington.
Courtesy of RIDC
Courtesy of RIDC
A rendering for the new Re:Build factory in New Kensington.

A native of Green Tree and previously CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, Wilke was instrumental in the tech giant’s transformation from an online book seller to one of the world’s most dominant corporations.

Tull also attended Monday’s announcement. The head of a locally based investment holding company called Tulco, Tull is Re:Build’s lead investor and a member of its board of directors. He previously led the film production company Legendary Entertainment, whose creations include the Dark Knight trilogy and Godzilla.

“I believe that being able to make things again in this country is important — not only for jobs and economic development, but frankly for national security,” he said. “We have to be able to make sure that we’re resilient and prepared for just about anything.”

Factories of the future

Since forming in 2020, Re:Build has hired more than 850 people while simultaneously buying up 11 advanced manufacturing companies across the country, with specialties ranging from software and aerospace engineering to large-scale factory automation. In New Kensington, Re:Build will deploy these assets in one location to establish its first full-scale production site. The company will invest $50 million in the site, according to the governor’s office.

Re:Build ultimately aims to build a national network of similar facilities, with the goal of providing contract manufacturing and advisory services at competitive prices. Its website lists applications spanning commercial aircraft, battery power storage, pharmaceuticals, and sports equipment.

“We have a rare capability to help our customers optimize their products and their processes,” Wilke said. “We're not going to compete with foreign manufacturers who depend on low wages, scant environmental regulations and theft of intellectual property. … Rather we’ll compete because we will arm our incredibly skilled team members in our plants with the latest advances in materials science, computer science, AI and machine automation, and advances in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.”

“We won't have to pay to ship product across vast oceans,” he added, “and we'll have the advantage of living in the same communities as our most important customers.”

Sources familiar with Re:Build’s plans said the firm chose New Kensington over a competing site in the Cleveland area partly because it is less expensive to rent space in the former Alcoa site. Re:Build began its national search with 26 cities, said Don Smith, president of the Pittsburgh-based Regional Industrial Development Corporation.

Re:Build will initially occupy 175,000 square feet across five buildings at the New Kensington facility, with the possibility of expanding its footprint over time. The group signed a 10-year lease on the space, agreeing to pay just $5 per square foot.

A rendering of a new factory in New Kensington with robotic arms on the floor.
Courtesy of RIDC
Courtesy of RIDC

Pennsylvania will devote $18.75 million in state funding to help finance $31 million in renovations at the old Alcoa plant. Officials say the facility is in serious disrepair.

The state’s support includes $8.5 million in grant funding, according to a statement from the governor’s office, and Smith said it also includes an $8 million low-interest loan awarded through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority. Pittsburgh’s Richard King Mellon Foundation contributed another $5 million grant to the transaction, and Shapiro’s administration said Westmoreland County provided additional support.

‘We need to catch up’

Shapiro surely counts Re:Build's commitment to New Kensington as a major win. Just five months into his first term, the Democratic governor has made it a focal point to improve the state’s efforts to foster investment in innovative ventures.

“I said I'd be a governor for forgotten communities,” he said Monday, “and this is a prime example of making sure we invest in those kinds of places.”

“We are now prepared to plant a flag showing other states that Pennsylvania is ready to be competitive again,” he said. “And we're going to show that in New Ken.”

In recent years, Shapiro noted, states such as Ohio, New York, and New Jersey have devoted far more resources than Pennsylvania to economic development initiatives such as the New Kensington undertaking. “We need to catch up,” Shapiro said.

During his remarks, he acknowledged that Republican state Sens. Kim Ward and Joe Pittman were also on stage with him. Both lawmakers represent parts of Westmoreland County.

“I know they want to see this kind of economic development, not just in New Ken, but all across this Commonwealth,” Shapiro said of the two legislators. “And I want you to know that we worked closely together to help close this deal. That's an important fact that should not be lost on anyone."

As part of the project, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of New Kensington will sell the site to the Regional Industrial Development Corporation and the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation. The two economic development agencies will jointly own the campus, together investing $6 million. RIDC will hold 51% of equity in the property while WCIDC will claim the other 49%.

They aim to attract additional tenants beyond Re:Build, WCIDC executive director Jason Rigone noted in a statement. “We’re starting off with a great tenant in Re:Build, and we’re certainly excited to see their impact on the community,” he said. “But we’re also excited about the prospect of modernizing the other 85% of this 1.1-million-square-foot facility.”

“The presence of a high-quality, innovative force in the manufacturing sector, bringing hundreds of jobs to this community, could be a spark for investment in the region.” Smith, of RIDC, added in a separate statement.

It remains to be seen whether Re:Build can fill the 300 permanent jobs it plans to create in New Kensington. Even before COVID-19 shrunk the labor force, the manufacturing sector had shed workers for decades amid an economy-wide shift toward service occupations. Southwestern Pennsylvania’s population continued to contract as well, a long-term effect of the steel industry’s collapse.