FARRELL, Pa. – Helmut Bertram observes that the industrial corridor along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Farrell, Pa., has never been busier.
Truck traffic along the thoroughfare, which extends southward from Sharon to Hermitage in western Pennsylvania along the Shenango River, is as robust as ever, hauling product to and from local producers, he says.
“Everyone seems to be pretty busy,” Bertram says. “At least that’s my impression.”
It’s a trend not lost on his company of 50 years, Bertram Tool and Machine Inc., in Farrell.
Business, he reports, is on the upswing after the disruptions caused last year by the pandemic. While volumes aren’t quite to the levels they were before COVID-19 hit, Bertram says there’s a sense of a renewed confidence in the economy, especially in the near-term.
“We’re seeing quite a bit of activity. It’s definitely picking up after the downturn,” he says. “We are busy trying to keep up with our customers.”
Bertram Tool sits smack in the middle of the most concentrated industrial sector of Mercer County. From his vantage point, Bertram says he’s noticed more activity from steelmaker NLMK Pennsylvania, located directly across the street along Martin Luther King, and at other nearby mills.
Bertram Tool manufactures and machines precision components for a select number of industries, especially the medical field. While most of its customers are found in the northeastern part of the country and few sit in this region, the company serves as a barometer that reflects an expanding national economy.
As such, Bertram says his company, which employs 10, is saddled with the same challenges manufacturers across the county confront: labor shortages, price increases and a strained supply chain.
“We’ve adjusted by assuming delivery times are longer than two years ago and are building that into our proposals,” Bertram says. “But I’m certain that that’s going to get better.”
His customers face the same obstacles as well, Bertram says.
“Orders have taken longer than normal while material costs have risen,” he says. The price of titanium, for example, has skyrocketed, in some cases more than 100% depending on the alloy and size.
Still, after nearly two years, business appears to have returned full-throttle, Bertram says. “We’re very hopeful.”
Likewise, manufacturers have seized the opportunity to expand or to make new investments in their operations. In Hermitage, at least three manufacturers have completed, or are in the process of completing, major expansions to their plants, says Gary Gulla, assistant city manager.
“I think all of our manufacturers seemed to weather COVID,” he says. If anything, the rebound from the pandemic has spurred several companies to move forward on long-awaited projects, he says.
Gulla points to a 44,000-square-foot expansion at Extreme Machine Inc., a machine shop on Quality Lane in the southwestern portion of the city. “They’re well underway with this project,” he says.
He also cites the 200,000-square-foot addition of Joy Baking Co. at its 100,000-square-foot cookie manufacturing plant. The expansion augments more than 500,000 square feet under roof that is used to house the company’s Joy Cone ice cream cone manufacturing operations.
“The real challenge for everyone now is to find workers,” Gulla says. “[Joy Cone] has added about 140 employees since October. But they’re still beating the bushes to find workers.”
In recent years, Hermitage has witnessed expansions at Miller Industries – which produces components used in the tractor/trailer and towing industries, Gulla adds. The company recently finished a 100,000-square-foot addition, he says.
Meanwhile, companies such as Solar Atmospheres – which heat treats metals used in aerospace and other industries – has steadily grown over the years along the Shenango River industrial corridor.
“We still have some industrial space left in the city but our inventory is very full,” Gulla says.
“We continue to support regional economic development projects,” he says, through initiatives such as a revolving loan fund, tax abatements, and assistance from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office on more significant projects.
Statistics show just how much manufacturing remains an integral and vital component to the economy of the Shenango Valley.
As of the fourth quarter of 2020, the manufacturing sector in Mercer County employed 7,511 people, according to the most recent data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. This constitutes nearly 18% of the county workforce, data show, far greater than the 9.8% ratio for the commonwealth. And according to these data, those working in manufacturing in Mercer County earn an annual average wage of $58,472.
The manufacturing sector is also the second-largest employment base in Mercer County, statistics show. The health care and social assistance segment of the county is the largest – employing 9,308, or 22.2%, of the active workforce.
“In general, most of all the businesses we see are busy with backlogs,” says Brad Gosser, executive director of Greenville-Reynolds Development Corp. The development agency manages three industrial and business parks on 1,200 acres off state Route 18 in Pymatuning Township. “Some are struggling to keep up with orders.”
Gosser says growth is evident across every sector, affecting a diversity of businesses in Greenville-Reynolds’ parks. Tenants such as Salem Tube and RSI Metal Litho appear to have healthy backlogs, he says. “A lot of this is because of good management on what they need to grow.”
Renewed economic activity bodes well for new business at the parks, Gosser adds. For example, one of two new 16,000-square-foot “spec” buildings recently completed by Greenville-Reynolds is now occupied and there are four strong prospects for the second building, he says.
“In a month or so, that should be filled,” he says.
Given this strong demand, it’s likely that Greenville-Reynolds will construct two more buildings over the next four or five years, Gosser says. “One will be a larger industrial building with high ceilings and 10-ton crane capacity,” he reports. The second building would be smaller – about 10,000 square feet – suitable for light manufacturing.
“Right now, we’re waiting for prices to stabilize and the cost of materials to come down,” he says, before considering any additional construction. “But these are good, marketable buildings.”
Meanwhile, Gosser reports ongoing inquiries about locations within the industrial parks and the surrounding area. One site in particular, the former Trinity Industries South plant in Greenville, has attracted some attention from a “pretty strong company performing due diligence” on the property.
Trinity Industries closed its Greenville Rail Car Division more than 20 years ago and the site has remained vacant. Gosser is optimistic, however, that a new user will come forward with a plan to revive the brownfield.
“We’re hopeful that it could be occupied over the next six months,” he says. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of things happening in Mercer County.”
Pictured: Bertram Tool and Machine is positioned to see growth.