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Wolf Trumpets Investments In Aliquippa As The Former Steel Town Braces For Cracker Plant Opening

Tom Wolf Dwan Walker.jpg
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Aliquippa Mayor Dwan B. Walker Wednesday, August 11, at the East End redevelopment site located along the Ohio River. The officials celebrated more than $11 million in state grants the Wolf Administration has awarded to the former steel town since 2015.

In Aliquippa Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf touted more than $11 million in grants that his administration has steered to the once-booming steel town since 2015 — a period during which Royal Dutch Shell prepared to open its controversial ethane cracker plant in nearby Monaca.

“Aliquippa really deserves to be back to where it was and even better,” Wolf told community leaders gathered at the entrance to Aliquippa’s East End redevelopment site, located along Route 51.

Local officials said the state funding will help to improve infrastructure and could spur investment in affordable housing and commercial development. They see an opportunity to attract new residents and businesses as Shell completes construction of its plastics plant located about 10 miles up the Ohio River from Aliquippa.

The facility is expected to employ 600 people once it becomes fully operational next year.

Critics have long-warned the factory will be a heavy carbon emitter, both because it relies on energy-intensive processes and because the plastic it produces releases greenhouse gases when it breaks down. On Monday, the United Nations released a dire report that shows that climate change is accelerating. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that countries everywhere must cut greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

But despite his own efforts to reduce emissions, Wolf continued to defend the plant Wednesday, saying the facility will function as a bridge to a cleaner future.

“The sustainable energy future is going to require … the kind of lightweight products that are going to be made from … the feedstock that comes out of that cracker plant,” Wolf said.

He noted that the Shell factory will likely be less damaging to the environment than a zinc smelter that once occupied the same site.

Since Wolf took office in 2015, his administration has awarded a dozen grants to Aliquippa, primarily through the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.

The state has dedicated more than $7 million of that funding to the once-bustling East End commercial district. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will use the bulk of the money to redesign the Route 51 interchange that leads into the 4.5-acre site. A $37,500 grant from the Department of Community and Economic Development will also help to finance an environmental assessment of the area as officials prepare to market its 52 parcels to potential buyers.

Officials hope that such projects, along with the construction of affordable housing, will convince workers and businesses affiliated with the Shell plant to make Aliquippa their home.

Aliquippa Mayor Dwan B. Walker said state support is critical to revitalization efforts.

“You're standing in the middle of a renaissance, and you see what it's going to take — it takes a lot more dollars and cents than we have in our budget to do it,” Walker told the crowd at the East End site Wednesday. “We are changing the foundation of Aliquippa, one connection at a time, one grant at a time, one person at a time.”

Since 1987, Aliquippa has been designated as financially distressed under Pennsylvania's Act 47. Walker predicted that the state grants will help the municipality to exit that status “in another year or so.”

Despite concerns that the new development could raise the local cost of living, Walker said, “Gentrification is not something we speak of, because everybody in this city will have an equal opportunity to speak on anything that comes.”

That assurance satisfied Aliquippa resident Andrenna Williams, who worries that her neighbors could eventually be priced out of the local housing market. Williams manages Uncommon Grounds Café, which is located near the East End district.

She said she and her colleagues “just want to make sure that when the redevelopment happens, that the residents aren't left out or, worse, pushed out.” But she added, “So as long as everyone is being heard, everyone's being included, and everyone is being considered [in the decision-making], I think we're going to be okay.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.