Development Near Pittsburgh Airport Stunted

Fri April 02, 2004 - National Edition

IMPERIAL, PA (AP) Businesses looking to build warehouses or light manufacturing plants near the Pittsburgh International Airport could face months of delays and added costs as crews extend utilities, improve road access and level land.

The lack of infrastructure is a hurdle that many businesses and corporations don’t want to clear and has stunted development in the airport corridor and surrounding area, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and other officials said.

That’s why Onorato has asked the state for $17.5 million to invest in extending roads, building sewer and water lines and leveling land around the airport. The newly elected chief executive aims to create an inventory of 1,000 construction-ready acres during his first term.

"We want these acres ready so when businesses want to relocate, they have the land and they’re ready to go," Onorato said.

On March 15, Onorato submitted a state-funding request that included the $17.5 million for the development of a total of 360 acres near the airport. The infrastructure development could bring more than 3,100 jobs and $149 million in private investment to the area, the request said.

Joe Dornbrock, an independent economic development consultant who is a member of the Airport Area Development Council, called Onorato’s estimates of possible private investment an "educated guess," but not unattainable.

The nearly 12-year-old airport terminal and the roadways around it –– including the yet-to-be-opened Findlay Connector –– represent a $1.2 billion investment, said Ken Zapinski, the vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

While the terminal is often ranked as one of the best by travelers and industry experts, the development around the airport hasn’t mushroomed as leaders in the area had hoped.

"I think that there was an assumption that if you made an investment on [an airport] terminal and a highway to the terminal, it would be sufficient to prompt developers to develop on their own," Zapinski said.

The county owns about 10,000 acres in the area west of downtown Pittsburgh, but the airport sits on most of that land. Of the remaining 3,000 acres, all but 13,000 acres have environmental, topographical or other types of restrictions, Zapinski said.

The lack of road extensions, sewer and waterlines are obstacles, but the area’s hilly terrain is especially costly. Leveling land so its suitable for construction can cost as much as $50,000 to $100,000 per acre, Zapinski said.

There has been some office and retail development, such as the Mall at Robinson, but Dornbrock said that development was demand driven. The population in the area around the airport increased by 10 percent from 1990 to 2000 and those new residents created a market for new shopping options, he said.

Another possible reason for the lagging development is a lack of cooperation among community leaders.

But more than a year ago, leaders from Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties pledged to work together on regional development. Onorato said the partnership approves of his state-funding request.

"We have been hearing all these promises that if you build an airport, everyone will come," said Allegheny County Council member Doug Price, who represents an area near the airport. "We realized that it takes more than wishful thinking and it takes partnerships."