A push to ignite McKees Rocks

McKees Rocks, as seen from the McKees Rocks Bridge. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

First of an occasional series, Up From the Rocks, following early stage entrepreneurs in a McKees Rocks business incubator.

As snow approached on the first evening of spring, a roomful of people who aim to invigorate the struggling borough of McKees Rocks huddled over pizza, hoagies and salad in a cozy meeting space along the town’s main drag.

Many of them didn’t know each other before the kickoff session for Launch Sto-Rox, an incubator project meant to guide members in bringing their businesses and nonprofit initiatives to fruition over the next year.

By the time they finished their meals, they had gained insights into how they all landed on a path to entrepreneurship in a neighborhood long marked by high unemployment, poverty and crime.

Denise Zellous, a former drug addict who’s been clean for 18 years, said her Zellous Hope Project should help low-income men who face barriers to seeking and holding jobs.

Jamie Johnson with New Sun Rising looks over paperwork with Denise Zellous during a Launch Sto-Rox business incubator program meeting in McKees Rocks. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

Quaishawn Whitlock wants to operate a design and printing shop, Teen Studio Sto-Rox T. Youths could go there after school, building leadership skills and staying off the streets.

Caitlin Spitzer, editor at Gazette 2.0, wants to grow the fledgling community publication into a voice for local news after the town’s 125-year-old Suburban Gazette closed abruptly last year.

It was just the first meeting, but Scott Wolovich, executive director of the New Sun Rising nonprofit backing the incubator, was already teaching. The first lesson was advising the incubator participants on talking to potential investors and customers:

“Be concise and short,” he said. “If you don’t have people in the first 10 seconds, they’re lost.”

Launch Sto-Rox is the latest New Sun Rising project in a series of incubators that target low-income, distressed communities such as Sto-Rox — a former industrial center four miles west of Downtown Pittsburgh that includes Stowe and McKees Rocks.

New Sun Rising’s mission is to help revitalize underserved neighborhoods by assisting entrepreneurs who have a social mission. It has launched incubators in Wilkinsburg, Millvale, the North Side and the city’s Hilltop-Allentown neighborhood.

Projects that emerged from its Millvale incubator include commercial food businesses like Tupelo Honey Teas Cafe, which opened in 2016 adjacent to the town’s library.

In the Hilltop area that includes Allentown, Beltzhoover and Knoxville, the incubator helped launch Academy Pittsburgh, a web development program that asks its coding boot camp students to give back to the community through service projects.

Darnel Boyer, a 10-year employee of Suds and Subs, sweeps outside the restaurant. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Founded in 2005 to promote community building and economic development, New Sun Rising has an annual budget of just over $1 million.

Unlike many business incubators sponsored by private companies or universities, New Sun Rising typically doesn’t start with a physical space for startups. But like traditional models, it nurtures member firms with technical assistance, access to loans and lots of coaching.

“Many incubators focus on technology and high growth,” Mr. Wolovich told the participants at the first Launch Sto-Rox session. “We focus on people and community. Aren’t people more important than apps?”

Partnering with the nonprofit are the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. and Focus on Renewal, a social services agency that provides community resources such as family support programs, workforce assistance and cultural events.

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation is supplying an undisclosed amount of funding for the project.

A community down on its luck

The sun begins to set over McKees Rocks. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Once a thriving metals manufacturing and railroad center, McKees Rocks began a steady decline after those industries started to dramatically downsize in the mid-20th century.

No businesses now come close to employing the thousands that once worked at the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and steel companies along the Ohio River. Unemployment in McKees Rocks between 2012-16 averaged 9.1 percent and in Stowe 9.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. By comparison, the region’s overall rate currently stands at 4.5 percent.

Among the largest employers now is General Wire Spring, a nearly century-old manufacturer of sewer and drain cleaning equipment that employs about 120, said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks CDC.

The borough’s population, which peaked in the 1930s at 18,000, now stands at about 6,000, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Stowe’s population is about 6,200.

About a quarter of people in both McKees Rocks and Stowe live at or below the federal poverty level, which was $28,290 for a household of four in 2017.

In nearby Kennedy, only 5.4 percent of residents are below the poverty level.

Besides crime, the area has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. The ZIP code that includes McKees Rocks and Stowe ranked among the top three places in Allegheny County for fatal overdoses last year, according to data from the University of Pittsburgh.

Altering the perceptions of the area as a place that can’t support new business “is a big thing,” Mr. Vrcek acknowledged.

“To the extent people depend on a local market [for customers], that could be a hindrance,” he said. “The population doesn’t have a great amount of disposable income, and a lot of people aren’t used to maybe spending their leisure dollars in McKees Rocks.”

The Future of McKees Rocks

Robots and theater

Pittsburgh's Downtown skylight is visible from a McKees Rocks backyard. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

But Mr. Vrcek believes the area is in transformation.

Signs of renewal

Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Last year, CSX Transportation Co. opened a new freight terminal on the former P&LE rail yard — a move local officials see as a significant step toward attracting other businesses and development.

One high-tech venture already has made a commitment: Phantom Robotix, an industrial automation business, recently acquired a 22,600-square-foot facility on Island Avenue that was formerly a film production studio.

In the deteriorated central business district, the historic 1,400-seat Roxian Theatre is undergoing a $9 million restoration. The town hopes the venue will trigger a ripple effect with cafes, restaurants and other retailers filling empty storefronts along Chartiers Avenue, the main street.

The area still boasts a couple of Pittsburgh’s iconic food enterprises: Mancini’s Bakery, which has been operating for 92 years, and 5 Generation Bakers, which produces Jenny Lee Swirl breads for retail distribution.

“One of the biggest challenges for Launch Sto-Rox is getting everyone to believe in McKees Rocks,” said Lydia Morin, director of community engagement and enterprise for Focus on Renewal.

How the incubator works

Locals walk through the streets of an old neighborhood in McKees Rocks. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The startups chosen for the incubator “are real grass roots” who have a sense of the neighborhood’s obstacles, Ms. Morin said.

“What I love about this group is they already believe in it and know they can make a difference by having their organizations and businesses based here. They’re already thinking, ‘Once I am successful, how will I give back to this community?’ ’’
With expertise shared by New Sun Rising, startups “can get the right technical assistance … to not only get a business up and running but to make it sustainable,” said Mr. Vrcek.

McKees Rocks retiree Glenn McCort sits outside Rudy’s Bar and Grill Wednesday morning. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Plans for Launch Sto-Rox started more than a year ago with surveys and community listening sessions to determine what types of businesses and services residents wanted, said Ms. Morin.

Among the top things mentioned: food access, destinations where the community can gather and places for arts and culture.

In November, the nonprofit invited residents to a Saturday morning workshop to learn specifics about the incubator program. Then it began accepting applications.

There were 20-plus applicants. The selection process was community driven, Mr. Wolovich said. “New Sun Rising doesn’t know what’s best for the community. The people and stakeholders in the community do.”

Besides Zellous Hope, Teen Studio Sto-Rox T and Gazette 2.0, those who made the cut include a co-working office and small production space being developed by the McKees Rocks CDC, an agency to mentor young women, a moving business, a husband-wife team that combines yoga and healthy foods programs, a digital learning and literacy firm, an artisan and maker space, and an art and design studio that uses reclaimed materials.

Antwan Demery and Quaishawn Whitlock at a Launch Sto-Rox business incubator program meeting in McKees Rocks. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

Over 12 months, the participants will meet monthly for instruction and feedback on crafting business plans, funding sources, branding, marketing, accounting, budgeting, and softer skills such as leadership style and managing clients.

By next March, they’ll see what ideas work and which ones will need more nurturing. And if these earnest business people can start to push change for McKees Rocks and Stowe.

“Small business entrepreneurs often think in terms of [becoming] a Facebook or Amazon,” said Mr. Wolovich. “But in reality, it’s a grind. There are lots of ups and downs.”

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.