Vision 2019 | Optimism high after ‘really good year’ for Johnstown’s heavy industries

Gov. Tom Wolf (left) speaks with Jackie Kulback, CFO of Gautier Steel, in downtown Johnstown on Aug. 16, 2019.

The state awarded $2.7 million to the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority for the building of an access road to 115 acres of undeveloped city land that local leaders hope to turn into an industrial park.

The grant removed a major obstacle to the development that could directly add 500 to 800 jobs when completed, according to a JRA estimate included with the grant application.

It was the latest in a sequence of developments that led some local business leaders to call 2018 a good year for the Johnstown region’s manufacturing sector and other heavy industries.

Melissa Komar, executive director of the JRA, said she was “ecstatic” when the funding was announced by Gov. Tom Wolf, adding that the award will allow the authority to continue its “efforts to push for heavy industry and manufacturing within the city of Johnstown.”

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland Township, called the award “crucial to continued and successful efforts to turn a former abandoned brownfield into an economic incubator where businesses can locate and grow, provide jobs to area residents and improve our economy.”

The site, officially known as the Johnstown Urban Industrial Park and located on a hillside above Johnstown’s Minersville neighborhood, was once used to store equipment and material associated with steel-making at the Cambria Iron Works plant, but has since sat unused for decades, Komar said.

The Multimodal Transportation Fund grant will cover the majority of the $3.6 million project’s costs associated with building a 2,000-foot-long, 40-foot-wide paved roadway to the site and installing infrastructure such as gas, electricity, sanitary sewer, storm sewer and water lines.

The road, when eventually built, would replace the only current means of vehicle access to the site, which the JRA has described as “a steep, dangerous dirt-and-gravel road.” The new corridor would connect the site to the section of Iron Street along which a number of Johnstown’s heavy-industry businesses – including JWF Industries, Center for Metal Arts, Pipelines Inc., Cambria Industrial Development and Hanging Gardens LLC – are located. 

‘A really good year’

Linda Thomson, CEO of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, in late January proclaimed that “2018 was a really good year, and 2019 looks even better.”

She said: “The outlook, generally, for our heavier industries is very positive. … In the last four or five months, I have visited with most all of our major industrial companies, and without any exception, they … all had positive outlooks for the end of 2018 and into 2019.”

That success causes what Thomson described as “a good spin-off effect when it comes to the economy.” For every job created in manufacturing or heavy industry, she said, three more jobs are created downstream in sectors such as transportation, warehousing and administrative support.

“All these other things come into play,” she said. “While we all understand that small business is really an economic generator, so are our anchor companies – as they do (well), the small business community does even better. … They are such big economic generators in that sense.”

Thomson’s biggest concern has to do with the number of qualified employees in the region.

“Frankly, the largest issue that we’re dealing with across the board is making sure that we have the employees (with) the right skills to come into those companies and … keep the momentum going that they have,” she said. “Manufacturing jobs and the skills needed in those jobs have changed significantly over the years.”

Thomson worries that, if Johns-town-area employers aren’t able to find skilled workers in sufficient qualities, then the region’s economic growth could be stifled.

“The concern I have from the economic-development side,” she said, “is (that) I really don’t want to see companies turn down work because they don’t have enough people to make the production quotas they need. Certainly, we don’t want that work going somewhere else.”

Thus, she said, her biggest priority going into 2019 is “to help recruit, train and build on the supply-chain opportunities so that we can keep as much money circulating the local economy as possible.”

Gautier: Market ‘strong’

Jackie Kulback, chief financial officer and controller of Johnstown-based Gautier Steel Ltd., said in early February that 2018 was “a great year for Gautier.”

Kulback said the company has been building up a market for the products of one of its newer mills, which was installed as part of a $20 million investment in 2015 and “can roll the hardest metals known to mankind.” 

Gautier has earned an AS9100 certification that allows it to expand into the aerospace industry, she added.

“It’s a big deal,” she said of the certification.

In November 2017, Gautier announced that its ownership had been transferred to a group of

22 employee stockholders, a move that Kulback said at the time solidified the company’s plans to stay in Johnstown for the long haul. 

In the year-plus since, that move “hasn’t really changed anything one way or another” at Gautier on a day-to-day basis, Kulback said, adding,  “It’s business as usual.”

Looking ahead to 2019, Kulback was optimistic. She said that Gautier has “been able to navigate through” the tariffs that have added “a level of complexity” to the steel market.

“Right now, the market in most areas is very strong,” she said.

Work continues on Gautier’s efforts to improve the appearance of the borders of the company’s property, along Washington and Clinton streets in downtown Johnstown. Kulback said the streetscape improvement project involves “monumental bureaucracy.”

As an example of the complexity of the project, she pointed to the fence that runs along the Washington Street boundary of the company’s property. 

Two water lines, one from the Quemahoning Reservoir and one from the Hinckston Run Reservoir, run under the fence and into Gautier’s property, and railroad tracks are located along either side of the fence, complicating efforts to make any changes.

Still, the end of the project may be in sight.

“Our goal is to get it done by June,” Kulback said.

‘High-skilled work’

In April, Lockheed Martin cut the ribbon on a new Richland Township facility where dozens of workers apply radar-absorbent coatings to exterior doors and panels of the company’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jets.

During remarks delivered at that ribbon-cutting, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey described the Johnstown region as “a center of excellence for national security” and said Lockheed Martin’s investment furthers that tradition.

“The defense work that has been done here for generations is central to our national security,” Casey said. “To be able to say that the people of Johnstown are producing workers that can do this work – that is very precise, very high-skilled work – I think is a tribute, not only to Lockheed Martin, but a tribute to the people of Johnstown and this region.”

Thomas Carrubba, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of F-35 production operations, said at the ribbon-cutting that much of the company’s F-35 coatings work is done at its facility in Fort Worth, Texas, but production limits there forced it to shift some production to another facility in order to increase the rate of production.

Lockheed took over the former Planet Ice skating facility for this project.

The company continues to operate a plant on Industrial; Park Road, also in Richland Township.

“It turns out that Johnstown had excellent facilities available,” Carrubba said. “They offer a great team with skilled workforce that we need to do this type of work, and, ultimately, the economics played very well. ... This is a very affordable location to do this type of work, and that all worked to our advantage.”

Showcase contracts

In June, at the 2018 edition of Showcase for Commerce – Johnstown’s annual defense-industry expo, three of the largest local companies involved in defense contracting announced deals that they said would bring millions of dollars in spending into the region.

Concurrent Technologies Corp. reached a $4.7 million deal to provide technical support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s readiness reporting system and an up-to-

$6.2 million partnership with U.S. Marine Corps Installations Command for risk mitigation consulting and cybersecurity support. CTC also was one of three awardees of a $49 million contract to support U.S. Air Force energy efficiency.

“It’s good for our community that we’re winning work on a competitive basis, that we have the talent and the resources in order to win that work,” CTC President Edward Sheehan Jr. said at the time. “I think, for our employees, it’s especially gratifying to know that they possess such great capabilities that is interested in and needed by our clients.”

Kongsberg secured a $30 million

contract with the Army to make low-profile variants for Abrams tanks. 

David Zucco, vice president of Kongsberg Protech Systems, said the work means “good, family-sustaining jobs” for local individuals.

And JWF Defense Systems announced multiple deals, including an agreement with Progeny Systems to build cabinet enclosures for submarines, an agreement with Lockheed Martin to construct 50 “stationary platform electronic subsystem units” for the AN/TP/Q-53 radar system and a contract to make gates for flood protection of subway entrances and stairwell entrances in New York City.

“We have the largest amount of contracts I’ve ever had in my 31 years of business,” JWF owner Bill Polacek said at the time.

“It’s business that’s long-term, and it’s business that moves us up the food chain in the defense industry.”

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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